Director: Charlie Lyne
Writer: Charlie Lyne
Producer: Catherine Bray, Anthony Ing, Daniel O’Connor
Stars: Amy E Watson
A narrative monologue questions the psychology of fear over a series of clips from 82 different horror movies.
Traditionally billed as a documentary and more popularly described as a video essay, “Fear Itself” is effectively the nonfiction film equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting: a stream of consciousness spatter where scalable artistic value is purely subjective, and directly dependent on whatever supposed subtext might be ascribed by the beholder.
“Fear Itself” is the child of Charlie Lyne, a twentysomething filmmaker whose idea of avant garde experimentation includes forcing the BBFC to classify a 10-hour recording of paint drying. Lyne’s film features Amy E Watson narrating as a disembodied young woman whose grief coping mechanism is to muse aloud about fear’s relationship to the psyche over a visual accompaniment of snippets from various horror movies.
Cinematic academics fooled by the film’s arrogant abstractness would have you believe that “Fear Itself” is a poetic treatise on genre filmdom that speaks directly to the human condition. A consumer audience instructed to accept this rambling clip-collage as intellectual entertainment will correctly counter that bluff, calling out the film for being robustly dull and meandering in meaning.
Narration is intoned with a cadence of forced lyricism. Watson’s voice, through a throat dusted by the chalk of slumber, treats every word as being so fraught with invaluable import that not speaking each syllable in a thoughtful whisper would be an imaginary insult to the prose’s precision. The monologue’s monotone is such a dark drone of sleepiness that conscious and unconscious ears compete to see which can tune it out first.
Certain clips have structure to their sequencing. For instance, a segment on the fear of flying starts with Sandra Bullock figuratively kissing the ground in “Gravity” (review here), progresses through Daniel Craig rescuing a hot air ballooner in “Enduring Love,” and culminates with a blanketed John Lithgow cold-sweating on an airplane in “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
Other clips are cut together, e.g. consecutive scenes of people falling down stairs or driving, to illustrate a continuous thought. Some are also timed to specific beats, like the deep giallo hues of “Suspiria” when wondering about dreamy shades of blue, or Christopher Walken riding a rollercoaster in “The Dead Zone” while waxing on the appeal of theme park thrills.
This contributes to an occasional illusion of deliberate organization in spots, but there is no firm impression that writer/director/editor Charlie Lyne meticulously researched countless films to curate only essential moments befitting intended themes. Much of the time, “Fear Itself” plays as a scattered hodge-podge of random movie moments that are not necessarily even memorable scenes. Many of these clips are also pulled so far out of context that you cannot garner an accurate sense of which unfamiliar films might be worth watching in their entirety.
The telltale mark of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to say is one weighted by the burden of too many maybes. And uncertainty is a terrible place for a documentary, even a video essay, to root itself without a firm position worth pondering. This is a sampling of noncommittal sentiments pulled from various points in the film:
“Maybe we’re always molding our own anxieties, shaping the way we experience the world … I think that’s maybe why I find it hard to identify with people who wind up in cults … Maybe there’s a reason it’s Frankenstein’s name that comes to mind when his creation does something monstrous … Maybe that’s why so many horror films go on and on about real events and true stories. Maybe that’s why they ground themselves in the language of science … Maybe it’s ordinary people we have to worry about.”
That’s a lot of ifs, I don’t knows, and pure conjecture, and not anything by way of convictions, conclusions, or contemplative points worth a sincere stroke of the chin. Pointlessly padded with ambiguous observations, you come out the other side of “Fear Itself” in exactly the same state as you entered. Which begets the question, if a movie cannot have any measurable effect on your thoughts, feelings, memory, mind, or values, what is its quantifiable worth?
In speaking another circle around one more unformed idea, “Fear Itself” serves up another maybe: “Maybe that’s why when the film is over and the credits roll, we’re always left hanging, left looking for answers within.” It turns out that the most insightful thing “Fear Itself” has to say happens to be an indirect commentary on itself.
Review Score: 35