Gripped (at Times Loosely) by Fear

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

It was a long time ago, in a place I sometimes visited as a child, that I wandered into the woods late one afternoon and became lost.

That's the classic beginning for the horror story of old. The primeval forest, the dark, the journey away from safety and light, toward something that defies rational thought: It's a descent into a frightening world of things that cannot be explained.

This is also the place revisited in the best segments of "Fear(s) of the Dark," a collection of half a dozen animated, French-voiced tales (with English subtitles), all in black and white, beautifully drawn by some of the world's best graphic artists. The stories that work take us back to a pre-Freudian planet where your worst fears really can come true. The drag is that two recurring stories, interspersed throughout the film and meant to tie it all together, are pointless, if not puerile. The thing never gains any momentum.

The first star of the show is Charles Burns, whom comic fans will know from "Black Hole," the serialized graphic-art comic that was compiled into a disturbing book about a sexually transmitted disease that deforms its victims in grotesque fashion. Here, he also tells a sexually charged story about a shy young man (voiced by Guillaume Depardieu) who, while living in a rural area as a child, wanders into the forest (see above) and captures a humanoid-type insect. He pops it into a jar and takes it home, where it escapes. He still hears it from time to time, as if it has burrowed into his bed.

Years later, off at college, he has a sexual relationship with the beautiful Laura (Aure Atika), who wakes up one morning with a deep wound in her wrist. Uh-oh. Burns's artwork is stark, spare and ordered, as is his story. The tale, which owes more than a little to Franz Kafka, is more creepy than horrifying, but it still works wonderfully.

The second -- and to my mind, best -- story in the film is Lorenzo Mattotti's tale about a young man who comes back to a small town, where something strange and menacing happened years before, when he was a child. . . . It's adapted from a graphic story he did in 1999, with a script by Jerry Kramsky. The shades of gray, the roiling clouds, the thing in the marsh, the completely empty landscape of the plains, with only a church and a few tall trees to break up the skyline, are rendered by Mattotti's pencil as sad and beautiful at once. It's not reality, it's a world of childhood we remember from dreams -- if only our dreams were this elegant.

Richard McGuire's closing segment, about a man wandering into an empty house in a snowstorm, is a wordless, entertaining play on silhouettes. It's amusing, but the story doesn't go very far. The less said about the other segments -- from Blutch, Marie Caillou and, most annoyingly, Pierre di Sciullo -- the better.

You leave this collection of stories about as irritated as you are entertained, but with two marvelous stories in your head that demonstrate beautifully how much meaning there can be in shades of gray.

Fear(s) of the Dark (80 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains brief images of nudity and several disturbing passages involving violence, torture and mutilation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company