Richard Dreyfuss, in neoprene suit, plucks the outsize predator’s tooth – the out-and-out proof – from the shark-bite in Ben Gardner’s boat. The viscous, North Atlantic blue in which Jaws’s Hooper swims becomes – in Fear Itself – the ultraviolet blue of Suspiria’s dance academy, where student Sarah, petrified, hugs the honeycombed walls.
With unnerving scenes as these, excerpted from existing horror movies, the newest and engaging essay film by writer-director-editor Charlie Lyne hopes to induce the same sensation it seeks to deconstruct.
Lyne matures the format he established with his first film Beyond Clueless (2014), a survey of the mores of teen movies which paired excerpt-montage with a scripted narration voiced by actress Fairuza Balk. Discarding the chapter-titles that divided up his debut, this slower, more measured follow-up swaps the famous-name for a fictional narrator: a young woman who watches horror films “night after night” in her room, and whose backstory is disclosed in small doses over the film’s 87-minute duration. This female aficionado reflects at length on the nature of fear, and how it is roused by the horror films we’ll sit through notwithstanding.
Premiering last weekend on BBC iPlayer in ample time for Halloween, Fear Itself draws on a variety of films – in spite of Lyne’s confining himself to mostly dialogue-less scenes, so as not to overwhelm his talkative voice track. His sources run the gamut from slasher to giallo to gothic, featuring films of all eras from Frankenstein (1931) to Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000).
There’s a lot to like about Lyne’s film. Among its strengths is the film’s showcasing those parts of horror movies that aren’t the knockout shocking moments, but the in-between or interim scenes that build toward a trauma. Habitually, Lyne cuts shy of reveals, as in the abovementioned Jaws scene, cuing in the Argento film before the severed head of the missing Ben Gardner drops from deep inside his boat, scaring Hooper out of his skin and the viewer, too, in sympathy.
Similarly, with Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Lyne skips to the next clip before permit us see the gremlin, its grim-face pressed to the airplane window, that sets John Lithgow’s anxious flyer screaming with such intensity as could force his eyeballs from their sockets. Instead, we get only the character, recently reseated post-panic attack, wrapped in a red gratuity-blanket and sweating from every pore. Lyne lines up these fragments like so many specimens in formaldehyde, side-by-side in airtight jars, the better for the viewer to linger over their disquieting contents.
It’s a pleasure – albeit of the troubling kind – to have one’s attention drawn to such scenes, the deftness of which we’re like to miss when we watch a horror film start to finish – and not only for the first time. Relieved of the expectation of shock – the chokehold-fear of fear – we can take in the skill of their storytelling, unimpeded.
Of these intermediate or amputated episodes, Lyne devises one long, rhythmic sequence at the opening of his essay, queuing up the quiets that are common to these scenes, “giving you” – as his narrator explains – “just enough sound to hear the silence”. The white way-out of the road tunnel in Sette note in nero (1977) from which Jennifer O’Neill recoils as she travels nearer to it metamorphoses into the headlamps of Dana Andrews’s oncoming car in British-made horror Night of the Demon (1957). These milder clips are eclipsed by the coruscating of Post Tenebras Lux (2012), with the tension breaking, finally and frighteningly, with the sudden paroxysm of a scene from Altered States (1980).
Lyne’s orchestrating suspense of many, smaller suspenseful scenes is accomplished, and helped by Jeremy Warmsley’s atmospheric score. So doing, Lyne captures a mood that’s ubiquitous in the horror genre, but outshone by more memorable, main-event frights, and so forgotten. This mood is the melancholy, the undercurrent sadness we find in Antichrist (2009), Nosferatu (1922), Peeping Tom (1960) and Don’t Look Now (1973), all of which feature in Fear Itself.
The film’s narration, however, is not without its shortfalls. At its best, it expresses an original thought, economically worded, and dispatched in perfect synthesis with the accompanying passage of film. This is the case with the ‘sanctuary’ section; the scene from The Birds (1963), for instance, in which Mitch boards up the windows of the house to keep out Hitchcock’s corvid-marauders. “As long as fear’s still out there,” intones the female narrator, “sanctuary is a just sticking plaster, slowly peeling away” – which would do for a précis of the plot of It Follows (2014), one of the more recent titles to be included.
One might expect an effusive narration – as this one undoubtedly is – to be most effective when used in tandem with unassertive clips. Not so. The voiceover works especially well with the German Expressionist affectation of M (1931), its low modulations flattering Peter Lorre’s melodramatic body language on being hauled before a kangaroo court.
One could wish for a different voice to deliver Lyne’s thoughtful script. The decision to have Balk narrate Beyond Clueless made sense: her voice, recognisable from classic teen movies like The Craft (1996), tied nicely with Lyne’s text. Beyond Clueless worked to make us feel that scenes from as many as 200 teen movies might have taken place in one world, on one school campus. Balk’s drowsy reading was good adhesive. Fear Itself’s narrator shares Balk’s same stuporous speech pattern, but is harder to justify, applied as it is to a span of source material, some of which it doesn’t suit.
Occasionally clips are so absorbing, the original filmmaking so masterful – as with a woman’s suffering a seizure in a scene from David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) – that it’s possible to tune out what the narrator is saying without realising, too late, that one has. This is feasibly because one senses it’s not of the highest importance that we hear every word spoken; that the narrator’s personal history is of secondary interest to what’s shown. At times, the images and their interrelation suffice to send the message the narration labours to put across.
Yet this isn’t the sort of narration one can afford to dip in and out of. We’re likely to lose the thread of her thinking, which is loose and desultory; designed to sound natural.
On account of the narration’s being constant – there are few breaks, and they are brief – one sometimes has the feeling that the script is straining to maintain the pace it has set for itself: there’s caulking here and there, and the occasional overstatement, as when – with reference to The Strangers (2008) – the narrator repents, “And so I know it sounds ridiculous, but I found myself covering my eyes…” This could, of course, be credited to characterisation, but this degree of innocence doesn’t tally with her general shrewdness. Perhaps it’s that the sophistication and composure of the editing has one wish it were more often equalled in the script. Certainly, the film could have benefitted from letting the clips speak on their own behalves – and from a touch more trust that their apposition functions as commentary, no words needed.
It’s rare, however, this wishing comes in the way of enjoying Lyne’s film. Surpassing Beyond Clueless for confidence and acuity, slicker in execution, Fear Itself promises a bright future for this filmmaker – but we knew this by his debut.