(A.k.a. PEUR(S) DU NOIR)

Six talented animators including Blutch and Charles Burns were invited to make short films in 2007, based around their own notions of fear. FEAR(S) OF THE DARK, a French production and the brainchild of Christophe Jankovic, is the mixed result.

Presented in glorious black-and-white (aside from some flashes of blood-red midway through proceedings), it's a beautiful but portentous film that mixes humour, surrealism and leftfield art into interest - though not quite riveting - effect.

It begins with a stirring, ominous piano score that sounds like the opening to an old horror film. Then we're off into a dramatic and visually stunning sketchy cartoon concerning a man setting his pack of hungry dogs onto a small boy. The boy scarpers into the forest for cover, and one of the dogs gives chase. Cripes.

But the mood is then spoilt by a selection of random shapes dancing onto the screen while a female narrator speaks in French about the various things that frighten her. The images are akin to ink blots, and the dialogue is unavoidably pretentious and self-involved.

Still, it soon disappears and we move into the delightful little story of Eric (voiced by Guillaume Depardieu). We see Eric as an overweight adult, lying in what looks to be a hospital bed. He narrates as we flashback to his youth, and discover how he came to be in his current predicament.

Essentially exhibiting an adolescent fear of the opposite sex, this yarn throws in romance and weirdness in equal portions, as Eric courts the oddly interested Laura (Aura Atika). It eventually builds to a deliciously nasty finale.

The sharp contrasting monochrome look of this first vignette ensures it's constantly arresting, and even evokes atmosphere through it's sheer sledgehammer simplicity. A very pretty picture.

Then we're back to the random shapes, the arty-farty collages married to the incessant yakking of that female French narrator again. Boring! This segues quickly though into more nicely drawn footage of the man and his naughty dogs, this time tearing into diggers on a worksite.

Then we're into a sad tale of an Asian girl - Ayakawa Sumako (Louisa Pili) - who relocates with her family from London to a new town, and becomes the target of bullies at the local school. The occasional flash of crimson on the screen breaks the silence of the black-and-white, and acts as a canny prelude to the climactic surrealism that ensues. Body parts float in jars of formaldehyde, a huge black blob chases our petrified heroine - and it's all illustrated in a basic, South Park style. Strange, nightmarish and oddly compelling.

Another tale of childhood fear follows, again narrated by an adult reminiscing, as a nice-looking pastel story unfolds about missing kids and the subsequent police hunt that unearths a medley of dreamlike, sense-battering visual ideas. I struggled to follow the narrative on this occasion, but was blown away by it's textured shading and expert exploitation of the childlike fear of shadows. It's an extremely ambient episode, with lots of symbolism being given to animals (especially ducks). What it's all about though? Fuck knows.

More from the dogs next, including an amusing pay-off that satisfies just enough to help us tolerate a few more conceited meanderings from that female narrator.

And then, the best comes in last. A dark and surreal gem of minimalist animation that plays without dialogue and uncannily succeeds in making everything from splinters and family photographs to morning birds and snow seem scary. This eerie slice of black-heavy drama is as peculiar as everything on offer in FEAR(S). But, crucially, it manages to capture the essence of what it is that scares us.

Interesting and admirable in concept, FEAR(S) is undeniably a triumph of style and distinction. It's certainly worth a watch and initial impressions are likely to be very good. But the impact soon lessens as the film wears on and, ultimately, it stands as a very attractive but never consistently entertaining proposition. And for a film that purports to examine attitudes towards fear, it's never scary.

The film is presented in a sublime anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. Blacks are solid throughout which, given the look of the film, is a blessing. Images are incredibly sharp and detailed, with some animation looking as if it's ready to literally jump off the screen. It was like looking through a window while watching this at times - a HD performance on an SD disc.

The French audio is available in 2.0 and 5.1 mixes, both of which offer reliable playback. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

An illuminating monochrome main menu is animated with scenes from the film's first portion, leading to a static scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 12 chapters.

Of the extras, the most interesting is a 27-minute interview with Burns. Filmed in the Edinburgh pub The Witchery, he speaks in black-and-white about how he became involved in the project and his appreciation for the other contributors (who also include Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire). It's a relaxed and affable chat, despite the revelation that The Witchery is allegedly haunted by a ghost dog.

A 20-minute Making Of featurette follows, offering an odd approach which employs an abundance of storyboards and test footage instead of your usual interviews. There is the odd interview in the latter half of this documentary, but for the most part this is a dialogue-free montage of rough drawings, outtakes and more. It's a novel fashion and it works for the most part. Burned-in English subtitles are provided to assist those of us who are not fluent in French.

A stills gallery provides 18 striking drawings from the storyboards.

"Creative Personnel Biographies" does exactly what it says, offering 14 pages of English text divulging the backgrounds of those responsible for breathing life into FEAR(S).

Finally we get the original UK trailer. All 45 seconds of it, in anamorphic 1.78:1.

FEAR(S) OF THE DARK does for it's subject what DESTRICTED did for pornography: very little, other than give some talented director a free run to be pretentious. It says little new on the matter at hand, but is frequently stunning to observe and never less than interesting. If only it could have been more entertaining, or scary.

Review by Stu Willis

Released by Metrodome Group
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review