Directors: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The hubby and I enjoyed a great Halloween warm-up when we attended the final CIFF showing of Fear(s) of the Dark, an animated horror anthology from France that shows off some of today’s outstanding animators from France, Italy, and the United States, skillfully assembled by artistic director and title-sequence designer Etienne Robial. This was the third animated offering at the CIFF I viewed, and it served to reinforce my feeling throughout the festival that I’ve been missing a great deal by not seeing more animated films.
Fear(s) of the Dark, a mainly monochromatic film, has five discrete stories—four told beginning to end and one told in episodic fashion throughout the film. It also has interludes in which geometric shapes illustrated and animated by Pierre di Sciullo accompany the voiceover narration of actress/director Nicole Garcia, who details the social and existential fears of a self-absorbed woman (not making a difference, being hopelessly bourgeouis, dying of cancer or in a car wreak). These breaks from the more traditional horror of the other shorts provide a realistic look at the fears most of the film’s viewers actually face. Horror fans might find them distracting, but I was very amused.
The episodic film, by Blutch, opens the film as a cadaverous-looking man in 18th century dress restrains a team of four ravenous dogs as they walk through a town. Animals scurry for cover but the humans the man and the dogs encounter don’t fare as well as, one by one, the dogs break away and tear a boy, a laborer, and a dancer to pieces both on and off camera. The last dog, still under the man’s control, sees its reflection in a mirror and is mesmerized. The ending is completely unexpected and deeply satisfying. The animation is energetic, communicating the chaos driving these dogs and their master onward.
The first short, by Black Hole comic book creator Charles Burns, tells the story of a lonely boy named Eric (poignantly voiced by the recently deceased Guillaume DePardieu) whose isolated home in the country affords him few opportunities for social intercourse. His interest in the nature around him includes a fascination with insects, which he collects. One day he finds what looks like a praying mantis in a earthenware jug wedged between two tree limbs. He plucks the insect up with tweezers and drops it into a specimen jar. For some reason, he decides to hide the jar under his bed before going down for dinner. When he returns, the jar is empty. When Eric is old enough he goes to college, where he studies biology. He’s considered a nerd by everyone but Laura, a pretty classmate who eventually becomes his girlfriend. Their relationship goes kind of haywire, and we learn that Eric’s insect collecting had consequences. This segment seemed like a Twilight Zone episode, with a simple illustration style that seemed right out of the 1950s. The hubby liked it the best, but I liked it the least, mainly because its story seemed so hokey.
Marie Caillou’s manga/anime-influenced short deals with Sumako, a young girl whose family moves to a new town. They live in a house that backs up to a cemetery where a ferocious samurai warrior is buried. Sumako is taunted in school as the new kid and roughed up by the ancestors of the samurai. She heads into the cemetery out of curiosity and ends up confronting her deepest fears. The story is told in segments as Sumako, held in restraints, is given a dose of sodium pentathol by someone who looks like a mad scientist and told to keep dreaming. Her “cure,” for what we’re not sure until the very end, will only come when she reaches the end of the dream. I was intrigued by this short, its structure making me want to learn what happened next, like a good horror story told around the campfire. The ending may puzzle some people, but one crucial scene inside Sumako’s home telegraphs the horror that we are not allowed to witness.
Lorenzo Mattotti’s short creates a wonderfully eerie atmosphere right from the start, as a dark figure opens a door and walks in just far enough for a light to strike one wide and sinister eye. The man tells a story from his childhood about the mysterious disappearance of his uncle, whose empty boat returns to the shore of a marsh from which he was poaching fish at night. The man’s young friend, an apparent expert on the natural life of the area, observes a duck with a broken wing and says that the creature was injured by something large and ferocious. More people go missing as rumors of a bog monster stir the town. A tracker/hunter is called in to catch or kill the monster, which he does. But the man’s friend is never seen again. I thought this film was beautifully drawn and suspenseful. When the boy goes searching in the marsh with the rest of the tracking party, he comes upon a “presence” in the reeds. I leaned forward to see what would get him, only to have him respond to the calls of the hunting party to return. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending, but it was a very good effort throughout.
The last film, by Richard McGuire, was my favorite by far. Beginning with a small black dot on a field of white—a man braving a raging snowstorm—we are plunged into darkness as the man breaks into an abandoned house for shelter. He builds a fire and, rummaging in the dark, finds a bottle of booze in a cabinet. As he drains the bottle, he flips through a photo album he’s found on a table. The proper Victorian family that must have lived in the house is chronicled, including a melancholy daughter who is fond of ripping the heads off her dolls. Later, the daughter, now grown, is shown with her husband. Soon, his head is removed from other pictures. Eventually, every head in the album is cut out. The man dreams of a crazy woman with a butcher knife. But is it a dream? This short shows all the crazy details that a man in a strange, unlit house might imagine or encounter, lending a reality to the proceedings. I found myself squinting to see in the pitch dark and laughing at the all-too-human events that confounded the man, such as a table with uneven legs he tries to correct and his rage at inanimate objects. As the last full film in the collection, it was a great capper to a great evening.