Fear Itself: The Ultimate Horror Film

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Fear Itself
Directed by Charlie Lyne
January 7, 5:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image

As any David Lynch fan knows, there’s a fine line between high school dreaminess and shrieking grindcore terror. It’s probably safe to say that Brit wunderkind filmmaking film critic Charlie Lyne is a David Lynch fan. His first feature-length essay film, Beyond Clueless (2014), slotted Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me alongside other archetypal teen films in a knowing, voracious survey of the genre; his second, Fear Itself, cues clips of Lost Highway and Mullholland Dr., and keeps a Badalamenti-esque drone underneath its exploration of the horror film, something ominous lurking in the peripheral hearing.

Like Beyond Clueless, Fear Itself—which plays, with Lyne in person, as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s ever more eclectic annual First Look survey this weekend—compiles familiar and cultist clips into a discursive whole. Horror films themselves are often quite brilliant treatises on the relationship between audiences and the terror they seek out, a fact Lyne acknowledges with his first two clips, funny and spine-tingling meta-moments from Blow Out and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Like Beyond Clueless’s marvy credit sequence, which cut together school-hallway shots into a simulacrum of some uber-narrative dripping with iconography, hormonal angst and Simple Minds-like riffage, Fear Itself is initially almost a story, or at least a story structure, with atmospheric and foreboding clips from the likes of Tourneur and Fulci building towards a jump scare, while simultaneously the film’s voiceover narration discusses the foreboding atmosphere that precedes a jump scare.

But Lyne is primarily less interest in the “how” of horror cinema than the “why.” The voiceover is in the first person, with the narrator (actress Amy E. Watson) assuming the persona of a horror-film fan recently involved in an “accident” whose details are filled in over the course of the film, as she also muses over the allure of horror cinema, and talks about films she’s seen. Occasional literal sound-image parallels do make pedagogic points—or at least prompt us, appealingly, to connect the dots and consider technical aspects like sound editing and cinematography—but mostly keep the focus on the layman-philosophical implications of the title subject, as Lyne shuffles together good examples of films tackling phobias, pain, surveillance, sadism, the supernatural and the everyday evil. The subjective, vaguely poetic approach to genre criticism succeeds at filling in the context for images and sequences which might otherwise scan as gratuitous, and though the observations don’t boil down to anything revelatory, the relationship of the horror film to existential dread and awareness of death has a satisfying shape.

Within the 90-minute film, the transitions are sometimes weak or forced—Fear Itself can sometimes feel like a mere clip party. Still, the clips! The different film and digital shooting formats, technical competences and even print qualities are a synapse bonfire all their own. Lyne draws from a full century of cinema, from the usual suspects—American slashers, giallo, J-horror—as well as some further-flung titles, not all strictly horror films. Some of his edits are savvy film criticism—a discussion of fear of heights cuts not to Vertigo but to Psycho, and then to an homage in Four Flies on Grey Velvet—and others bring out giggles of recognition, or send you to your notebook to scribble down a new title on scrap paper. (The film is quite easy to follow: clips play one after the other, and all sources are identified.) If you’re not a genre junkie, you may want to go to the bathroom before the House with Laughing Windows clip ends—it’s safe to come back once you see George C. Scott in Exorcist III, though having seen Fear Itself I know Lyne would question what I mean by “safe.”

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