One thing to be afraid, be very afraid of, going in to Fear(s) of the Dark, a French animation anthology opening here just in time for Halloween, is that the range of its quality will be drastic.
True, like the proverbial bag of candy gathered from trick-or-treating, this one is necessarily mixed — and, to make matters scarier, it comes without any hope of rationing favorites and trading letdowns away. But that’s also the fun of it, the chancy thrill we hope to get from confining ourselves to a movie theater and sitting there for a while in the dark.
OK, forget the candy-bag simile; here’s another. Like a good nightmare, which is to say a bad nightmare, the (mostly) black-and-white animation on offer from these six eminent graphic artists seems at once brusquely literal and obliquely expressionistic. It tends not to explain or justify itself; all you know is that you’re there in the middle of it.
The crafty showpiece from Charles Burns combines Kafka, ’50s B-movie sci-fi paranoia and graphic-novel chic in conventional but compelling ways. A lonely nerd finally gets a girlfriend but finds her quite horrifically domineering, in a way that involves malevolent subcutaneous insects. Subcutaneous insects are bad enough as it is; them having evil agendas is really more than any meek young man can handle. This is a smartly designed and richly textured work. Maybe its best quality is that its style and substance seem so unified.
That also goes for the evocative charcoals of Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky’s campfire-worthy folk-tale, about an unseen creature terrorizing a rural Italian town; and for those intermittently delivered episodes by Blutch (Christian Hinker), collectively a political allegory for its own sake, as deliberately blunt as its hastily-penciled technique: A spiteful French nobleman of the 18th century struts through a village remorselessly unleashing his attack dogs on hapless innocents. Guess what becomes of him?
Marie Caillou and Romain Slocombe’s installment, about a Japanese girl tormented not just by her classmates, but also by a hostile undead decapitated Samurai warrior and a wicked needle-wielding doctor who insists that she power through her elaborate nightmares, peels back the inherent creepiness of its cutesy, anime-influenced faux-naïve aesthetic to reveal all sorts of twisted goings on underneath.
That seems consistent with the greater goal of Fear(s) of the Dark, which typically forgoes the banal horror-film shock tactics more common this side of the Atlantic nowadays in order to try and get at something more subtle and sophisticated, something more conspicuously grown-up.
Of course, it’s not lost on these artists that the most unnerving adult fears evolve from childhood fears left unresolved. Take the monologue of existential insecurities — “I’m scared of having a hard time proving the superiority of western civilization to an Afghan villager watching TV with me,” or, “I’m scared of being irredeemably bourgeois” — recited over Pierre di Sciullo’s jig of geometric patterns, for one lightly self-parodying example.
Or Richard McGuire’s remarkably old-fashioned and dazzlingly stylish contribution, the best of the lot, in which a man takes refuge from a blizzard in a pitch-dark haunted house. Nearly all of what we see is only what he can manage to reveal by the light of a match — and sometimes that’s more than we wanted to see. It’s exactly what the movies always seem to have understood: Sometimes it’s less frightening to just stay in the dark.