Though mostly billed as an essay film about horror cinema in the lead-up to its release on the BBC iPlayer service, Charlie Lyne’s follow-up to his teen movie dissection Beyond Clueless is more of an imaginative mosaic, less focused on drawing out clinical points about horror film technique and design than a broader reading of affecting cinema. In that vein it’s one of the most quietly impressive films of the year: an unassuming collection of clips skillfully patched together that acts as both an engaging monologue about fear in cinema and also as a rare film totally aware of its own mode of delivery.
Fear Itself swaps out Beyond Clueless‘ omniscient metatextual narration from actress Fairuza Balk for the voice of a constructed persona, presumably one modeled off of Lyne’s own viewing habits. Amy E. Watson plays an unseen woman recovering from a car accident, fighting through her insomnia by marathoning horror films, which she thinks “are built to take advantage of who we are”.1 The film opens on scenes from Blow Out and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, which both depict characters watching a film. We’re being positioned not only in the cinematic space of Watson’s narrator but also that of the characters on screen. It’s in that blurred boundary of consumer and participant that the underlying terror of empty space and silence suddenly gains a new dimension.
It’s easy to see Fear Itself as a more experimental take on the Beyond Clueless format but in a way it has more in common with a recent film Lyne edited, Ross Sutherland’s Stand By for Tape Back-Up. Both Sutherland’s film and Fear Itself share a sense of specific personal engagement with video footage (whether film or television) as well as indulging in an amusing call-and-response with selected clips; Sutherland’s monologue syncs up perfectly with the looped opening credits to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Watson’s narrator rails against a woman attempting to console her at a funeral by invoking a clip from Cronenberg’s Scanners.
A marked difference between Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself is in its it format of release and, thereafter, its differing approaches to presentation. The former film had a theatrical run and its uniform 1.85:1 aspect ratio rendered all of these disparate films part of the one visual world. The latter jumps freely between aspect ratios and image quality, mimicking the very nature of online streaming and access to films whilst also commenting on the selective nature of restorations.2 Another difference is that the mentioning and analysis of specific films in voiceover is mostly absent in Fear Itself unless the films are tethered to a real-world phenomenon, as in the ‘Poltergeist curse’ or the relationship between Jeffrey Dahmer and The Exorcist III.3 The film also shows a self-awareness with regards to being released through BBC iPlayer: the initially distracting film titles which pop up during each clip take on a new meaning when considering a viewer’s propensity to pause a film when watching online.4
Fear Itself is the second ever film to be produced for and released on BBC iPlayer, following Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake earlier this year. The fact that both are variations on the essay film is something of a surprise, though a pleasant one. In 2015 there has been a whole host of impressive films that re-purpose footage making the rounds at festivals; in addition to Curtis’ and Sutherland’s respective films, we’ve had Tim Wong’s Out of the Mist, Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, and Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth. Where each succeed is in their unique narrative worldviews, whether re-colouring our view of a specific political history or mounting an argument for a new film canon. Andersen’s film is a personal history of cinema, tied up in Deleuzean theory, and it’s actually an interesting foil to Fear Itself, which places a personal history of horror film consumption behind the veil of a character’s perspective.5
The narrative thrust of the film concerns fear generally, so Lyne doesn’t restrict the film’s source clips to American slashers. The stunning opening to Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux becomes pre-roll to one of the film’s few, yet very effective, jump scares; in a refreshing editing decision Gus van Sant’s Elephant and the film that inspired it, Alan Clarke’s Elephant, appear separately, not compared visually or thematically but used to illustrate the notion of a willing participant in horror influences (van Sant) and the horror that can be wreaked by normal people (Clarke). A pattern of viewing does become apparent, though, with very little gore on show and an affinity for supernatural J-horror (Cure, Ringu, Uzumaki, Ju-Rei: The Uncanny) and Italian horror from the ’70s (Fulci, Argento) in particular.
As with most effective horror films, the audio mixing is a highlight, from the carried across scream in the opening Blow Out clip to a somewhat mesmerising transition from The Night of the Hunter to It Follows.6 Jeremy Warmsley’s musical score is partly why this is so effective; humming low and drone-like, it’s chameleonic in its attachment to (or replacement of) existing film music.7 The absence of score and sound is likewise potent; some of the film’s most unsettling moments are when Lyne holds on a clip for an extended period of time, regardless of payoff.8
Just as red ink spills outward from the photo in Don’t Look Now, so too does Lyne’s film attempt to draw blood from film. Rather than definitively chart the evolution of the horror genre, or assert the quality of the films he selects, Lyne instead crafts a consistently engaging personal vision of the process of watching and absorbing film. That’s a surprisingly difficult task, at least in achieving authenticity of experience, and whilst the story of grieving that acts as the film’s plot might ring a touch too artificial, the personal navigation of cinema that it draws out feels anything but.
As of October 19th, Fear Itself has been streaming for free on the BBC iPlayer service. For UK readers, you can watch the film right away. For Australian and international readers, it should be noted that BBC iPlayer relies upon geoblocking technology to restrict viewing of the film. It is possible to circumvent this technology.
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