Fear Factor

Nicole Rudick on Fear(s) of the Dark

Fear(s) of the Dark, 2008, still from a film in digital HD, 80 minutes. Illustration by Charles Burns.

IN FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (2008), an international cast of graphic artists gives life to dread, fright, panic, terror, and just plain high anxiety. But these spine-tingling delights, rendered in bare-bones black-and-white, aren’t simply about things that go bump in the night. Rather, the six interwoven tales—by Blutch (aka Christian Hincker), Charles Burns, Pierre di Sciullo, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire—offer a distinct whiff of how varied horror can be.

Di Sciullo presents the most humane treatment of the night’s dark dreams. His pairing of morphing abstractions with a litany of existential worries (“I’m scared of being irredeemably bourgeois”), proffered in a matter-of-fact voice-over, is very French. Caillou’s tale of a bloodthirsty samurai spirit borrows stylistically from Japanese art, and Mattotti’s spooky pastoral preys on the unnatural quietude of rural life. The best offerings bookend the series. Blutch’s vicious metaphor of class politics, which opens the anthology, is told in brief episodes throughout the film. The ominous story follows an eighteenth-century marquis, voiced only with a grating cackle, who sets his ferocious hounds on an impoverished boy, a worker, and a woman. The artist’s scratched, smudged, quivering lines serve his narrative well, casting a chilly misery over a disturbing tale. Blutch’s murky tonal gradations are the inverse of McGuire’s impermeable blackness, which serves as the story’s principle character. In the film’s closing sequence (a tense but farcical adventure), a man navigates his way through a pitch-black house. As the dense darkness engulfs him, only his candle’s light calls forth a minute circle of the house’s interior, just enough for the remainder to be imagined.

For American audiences, who are likely unfamiliar with many of these creators, Burns is an enticing addition. His comic book Black Hole is a modern classic of Twilight Zone–style teen angst, and here he offers the most detailed narrative, reimagining Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” by way of sci-fi’s big-bug fantasies. A young man’s love of insects combined with his first sexual relationship is quintessential Burns, but the characters’ stilted movements distract from the story’s profound creepiness. The animation is reminiscent of something from CG’s early years, and the effect is not the enlivening of a series of drawings by motion but the filming of largely static pages.

Traditional horror fans may find few hair-raising moments in Fear(s) of the Dark, and even comics enthusiasts may consider it a mixed bag. But if mundanity makes your skin crawl, don’t watch this before bedtime.

Fear(s) of the Dark opens in New York on October 22. For more information, click here.