When I was a student in my third year of university, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to write my dissertation on horror movies. After all, I already knew the subject matter inside out and it meant I could stay up until 5am watching all the Hellraiser films in the name of so-called "research". Needless to say, an entire term of spending approximately 1/3 of my waking hours viewing the most depraved and shocking fare that the horror genre could deliver began to take its toll, and by the time I handed in the requisite 12,000 words I was having the most rancid nightmares imaginable.
Had A Fantastic Fear Of Everything been made a few years earlier, I might at least have been forewarned of this outcome.
Jack (Simon Pegg) is a children's author who has turned his talents to slightly darker material: a series of "plays for television" called Decades of Death, based on his extensive research into the legendary monsters of Victorian Britain – the "golden age of serial killers". For a man so neurotic that he has developed an irrational fear of launderettes – filling his apartment with dustbin bags full of yellowing unwashed pants and shirts – this might not have been the wisest topic to specialise in, but Jack throws himself into it with vigour and papers his walls with newspaper clippings, psychological models of psychopathy, and creepy photos of men and women with criminal stares. Spending his days and nights absorbed by the likes of Jack the Ripper and The Hendon Ogre has left Jack with a crippling fear that he is about to be murdered at any moment, and a certainty the only way to fend off the shades of caped killers stalking him is by jumping around his flat without his trousers on, clutching a carving knife.
All this is backstory, delivered by voiceover in the first twenty minutes of the film, but the story that we see is told mostly within a twenty-four hour period as the simple challenge of meeting his agent for lunch and an important Hollywood producer for dinner escalates into unimaginable catastrophe.
When I interviewed the directors, Crispian Mills described Fantastic Fear as a "psycho-comedy", and tonally it is in a similar vein to TV horror-comedies like The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville. Aside from a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, most of the humour exists as a patina of absurdity generated by the calamity pervading Jack's life, so the audience is at once amused by Jack's predicament and filled with a genuine sympathy for him. There was a lot riding on Simon Pegg's shoulders in this film, since for lengthy periods of the time he has to hold the stage by himself, conveying the solitude and torture of Jack's daily life. For the most part he does a great job, and when it falls flat the blame largely lies with flaws int he screenplay. More on that later.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything is definitely one of the most visually interesting films I've seen recently. There are very few locations but each has its own distinctive character, particularly Jack's flat, which appears to be an outward projection of his own madness. The film also has several small animated sections: an opening title sequence that can only be described as bombastic (that was the first word that sprang to mind whilst watching it, and later I found I was unable to come up with a better one); a 2D animation in the proscenium of a model hose in Jack's flat, which depicts one of the Victorian killers at work; and best of all, a short stop-motion fairy tale about a hedgehog which is narrated by Jack towards the end of the film. The live-action segments are never boring, with a range of camera tricks and intense shooting style that simultaneously keeps the storytelling entertaining and convincingly sells the film as a kind of ninety-minute nightmare.
The soundtrack is eclectic, refreshingly so for a film that could have easily muddled by with a simple haunting or melancholy score. I have a feeling that the word "bombastic" was in no small part spawned in my brain by the matching of the open animation to a song that is both lively and ominous. There's everything from sweet indie crooning to hardcore gangster rap (some vocals and dance moves provided by Simon Pegg), and the songs either match up nicely to the action, or contradict it with an enjoyable incongruity.
There are flaws in the film that hold it back from being truly great. The biggest and most distracting element for me was when the opening voiceover shifted into spoken stream-of-consciousness monologuing from Jack, expositing to himself as he scampers around his flat in a manner that might have been plausible on the stage but just feels out of place when portrayed on screen. 'Stream of consciousness' might not even be the best way to describe it, as Jack's words don't fit well with the image of a men terrorised by fear, but rather sound more like they are being quotes from a book or – more accurately – a shortlist of clever-sounding lines that the screenwriter wanted to fit into the film somehow. At their best Jack's lines bring us closer to his character, but at their worst they make his fear less convincing and subsequently make him less believable as a character.
The film also seems to lack cohesiveness, occasionally coming across as a series of vignettes starring the same character rather than as a fluid story, but the narrative is eventually brought full circle. I felt that the closure found in the final act could have been much more satisfying had the filmmakers committed fully to the mystery which lies at the centre of Jack's story, but which is referenced too vaguely and infrequently for the audience to become properly invested in it. Fantastic Fear ultimately answers the question of why Jack is as messed-up as he is, but it's difficult to appreciate this when you're never made to feel particularly curious about the question in the first place.
If limited to a single word, I'd say that A Fantastic Fear of Everything is unpredictable: a quality that's becoming increasingly difficult to attain in cinema when almost every film seems necessarily to retread old ground in some way. It's not perfect, and enjoyment of it will probably depend greatly on the individual's personal taste for gratuitous weirdness, and the extent to which you're willing to forgive its flaws for the sake of its uniqueness.
It's a funny film. I liked it. Maybe you will too.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything is out on general UK release from Friday 8th June. Rated 15 for disturbing imagery, swearing, and scenes of Simon Pegg running around in nothing but his pants.