Fear Itself is the new film from Charlie Lyne, director of the dizzying teen odyssey Beyond Clueless. Inspired in doses by Adam Curtis and Mark Cousins, this BBC iPlayer exclusive is a pulsating journey into the perpetual gloaming of doubt and dread, illustrated by an assortment of scenes from some of the creepiest, most insidious movies ever. These range from the obvious (Psycho, Night of the Hunter) to the hip (Carnival of Souls, Uzumaki, Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe) and quite a lot of other stuff in between. It’s an eclectic mix-tape of angst and apprehension.
For a young film-maker working in an incredibly niche format (Fear Itself isn’t just an essay film, it’s an essay film that discusses other films), Lyne is nothing if not ambitious. Horror is already one of the most revered and academically deconstructed of all genres, so it takes guts for a new voice to show up late to the party, with a fully formed dissertation in his pocket. That’s what exactly what Lyne does here, albeit with a highly personalised take that side-steps goblins, ghouls and gore in favour of a more psychoanalytical approach.
He’s an uncanny operator, one used to defying expectations. Beyond Clueless, for instance, wasn’t really about teen movies; it was more concerned with the sheer, unadulterated terror of existence, and who could blame it? So it goes with Fear Itself, which uses carefully curated clips to reflect on real concerns and neuroses linked to the human condition. Having said that, Fear Itself never claims to be the definitive scholastic word on horror (if that’s what you’re looking for, go read Kim Newman’s authoritative Nightmare Movies) but instead uses the genre as a tool to tell its own story.
If the movie is Lyne’s own personal “Shock Corridor” then we’re accompanied on our rounds by narrator Amy E. Watson, who previously appeared in another direct-to-VOD horror, Robert Florence’s excellent The House of Him. Watson narrates Fear Itself in murmured, syncopated tones, similar in delivery to Fairuza Balk from Beyond Clueless. The whispering North American chanteuse is the closest Lyne’s got thus far to developing his own stylistic trope, and it’s refreshing: the last thing the world needs is another privileged white dude calling the shots.
One thing Lyne has clearly developed since Beyond Clueless is that it’s not enough for the narrator to tell us exactly what’s happening on-screen. That’s just a waste of artistic space; better to fill it with something interesting and unusual. With that lesson learned, the commentary of Fear Itself focusses less on the clips themselves. These are directly referenced only in specific moments, like the time we learn that Jeffrey Dahmer was a fan of The Exorcist III. Instead, Fear Itself shines a light on the narrator’s own fears and anxieties: harrowing ordeals involving heights, hospitals, flying and funerals are all recounted and ruminated. Some of them are rational, others less so, and the film has fun asking, but never satisfactorily answering, what makes cinema hit these twisted nerves.
There’s an occasional clunker, such as the bit when Watson/Lyne tell us that fear is like “flicking on a switch and turning on a lamp” and we cut to Carl Boehm clicking on the projector in Peeping Tom. But for the most part, Fear Itself gets away with these occasional lapses into literalism. In fact, they just make the film even more disorienting. We’re never sure whether the script is fact or fiction, whether these reminiscences are Lyne’s direct recollections, or those of a constructed character.
The approach certainly provokes debate, although it can be oddly unsatisfying to watch. There are no clues. The information is withheld. Compare this to Beyond Clueless, which was a more structured piece that divided its themes into several tonally distinct chapters, driven by a clearly designated narrator. That film built up to an orgasmic, masturbatory release, literally and figuratively. Fear Itself, on the other hand, is looser, more free-form, but never pays off in the same way. Like the identity of the narrator, the orgasm is omitted. Sex is strangely conspicuous by its absence. In the movies, death and sex are interchangeable, and the pangs of murder are always on hand to punctuate the panic. In reality, the fear simply rolls on: a permanent, underlying state of foreboding and trepidation, anticipating a resolution that never, ever comes.
Fear Itself is now available to watch online exclusively on BBC iPlayer until October 2016. Read our interview with Charlie Lyne.