Earlier this year I wrote a somewhat critical appraisal of Charlie Lyne’s documentary on high school movies Beyond Clueless, bemoaning what I felt was a lack of depth. However, in the months since I’ve found myself revisiting the feature on more than one occasion. While I still find some of the insights lacking, the technique displayed evidently more than makes up for it in terms of enjoyment. It’s a pacy, buoyant journey, one magnificently complemented by Jeremy Warmsley’s rich scoring. What raises the film up above niggling deficiencies in content is Lyne’s evident enthusiasm. He isn’t afraid to play favourites. It’s a personalised journey. Something I aim frequently to bring to my own amateur film criticism.
Now he returns with Fear Itself – currently available exclusively on BBC iPlayer – and the template may seem superficially unchanged. As before the film is comprised wholly of clips from extant materials collaged together and set to a ponderous narration, this time exploring cinema’s – and by extension our own – preoccupation with what frightens us.
Note this does not by definition reduce its content to a mere checklist of horror films. Titles as diverse as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux make the cut (I especially love that the latter is included, particularly that the featured scene is the opening lightning storm – one of this decade’s most magical moments in cinema). What frightens us, Lyne confidently points out, isn’t necessarily as simple as a lurking monster or visceral threat (though on many occasions these will do the trick). The answer to what causes our engrossed, rapturous feelings of dread when watching a movie isn’t so easy to pin down as that, nor is the question of why we so readily seek to confront such responses through film.
Lyne channels more knowingly and the results are eclectic but always on point. Here he celebrates not the explicit but the haunting, the insidious. Those moments that reach back to us hours, even days after the film is over, when the lights are out.
As if to underscore this, Lyne avoids making Fear Itself a gratuity clipshow. He chooses the moments leading up to a reveal, not the ensuing ‘money shot’. It gives Fear Itself its own sustained tension as we are teased repeatedly and Lyne keeps adjusting our gaze.
One criticism levied at Beyond Clueless that stuck was that the narration frequently amounted to little more than recounting the synopsis of whatever film Lyne had chosen to feature. Fear Itself changes this approach considerably. The films featured are seldom addressed explicitly. Instead the narration is more like a confession or a diary, with images chosen to underline the points alluded to in Lyne’s hypnotic essay.
This will likely divide viewers. Some may find it too indulgent or meandering. But what Lyne manages to do here, transplanting his voice into that of narrator Amy E Weston, is create something eerie, moving and personal. It has resonance and asks more provocative questions than Beyond Clueless ever attempted. Fear Itself therefore is a progression and a welcome one.
It also has its own narrative. Interspersed with the increasingly involving musings on the whys and the wherefores of investigating fear, Lyne drops us breadcrumbs of a more personal traumatic event that perhaps acted as catalyst for this ride. One builds an impression of a tragically lost sibling, acting as root cause for Lyne. His words disembodied and placed in the mouth of Weston makes one wonder whether this is an act of dramatic licence, yet Weston’s delivery and the nature of the words chosen suggest otherwise. Lyne is communicating with us, albeit through the remove of his chosen method of expression.
My favourite of these anecdotal asides finds Lyne reminiscing on a time his sister told him that, with so many people on the planet, anything you can imagine happening probably IS happening somewhere. A palpably frightening possibility that makes reality out of the most ghastly fantasies. It may be the film’s most disturbing kernel.
It is in moments such as this that the narration of Fear Itself secures it’s value. It adds its own ghoulish, troubling layer to proceedings. But even if you let the words wash over you, Lyne’s film can still serve as a treat for cinephiles. You can watch and play a game of Guess The Movie before the answer is discreetly revealed to you in the bottom left corner (although Lyne’s fidelity to foreign language titles is irksome and unhelpful to more cretinous viewers, myself thoroughly included).
Lyne appears both troubled by our love of depicting fear and openly in favour of this expressive outlet, arguing that film has incredible influence on audiences but that it isn’t ultimately responsible for how those responses manifest. Lyne proposes that these nightmarish expressions, healthily digested, are useful, making film a vital vehicle for catharsis. Perhaps the most penetrative modern art form.
The most haunting aspect, perhaps, is that by depicting our worst nightmares we admit to our ability to conjure them. We admit to our own responsibility. With all the monsters and demons we can project and share, what we may ultimately be asking the world to accept is our own inner turmoil, our own worst selves. There’s reassurance in seeing that we’re not alone in being frightened also, regardless of whether our fears come from without or within.
And if the genius splicing of the little singing girl from The Night Of The Hunter with scenes from this year’s superb It Follows doesn’t give you goosebumps, nothing else this year will. Lyne is increasingly proving to be a modest master of collage.