The horror-a-thon is almost over. Whenever there’s a long list of things I have to do, I usually tire of it by around halfway through, after which a bizarre second wind careens me through the rest of the list and I’m finished wishing there had been more of it. I get attached. To lists.
Tonight’s movie, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, feels like a film that’s made up of a list of other films – really good films, adding up to a sort of quite very good full film. It’s listed in most places as a horror comedy, and, despite Simon Pegg’s painful expression of terror on the poster, I’d expected it to have dark humour more in line with Pegg’s other acting roles (I’m aware he didn’t write or direct this). I’d also assumed that Pegg would be spending the entirety of the film in his flat, looking terrified at things, and, judging from a review mentioning the word “psychedelic”, that he would be tripping balls or wildly hallucinating at some point. Well, none of that (or not much of it) actually happens.
We open with some animated credits, some Hammer Horror-style font, and some Evil Dead-style super-dramatic, unsettling, horn-heavy music. Pegg’s character Jack awakens to tell us that because a waiter looked at him in a funny, murder-y way, he’s convinced that someone’s trying to kill him, and so he keeps a knife on him at all times. The first few scenes of him alone, in his dingy, shadowy, health-and-safety-nightmare of a flat, build up such a sheer amount of relatable terror that I completely accidentally forgot to turn the light and/or TV off. It may feel like a cheap tension trick, but musing about possible killers in the hallway (hiding in the shadows), or lurking behind a shower curtain (where you’re at your most Janet Leigh-ish vulnerable) are easily spookable triggers, especially for paranoid British writers who have morbid creative curiosities. Ahem.
Not that Jack was always this way – he’s famous for being a children’s book writer, but after a failed marriage and some money troubles, he’s moved on to crime writing, and clearly it’s taking its toll. His laid-back agent tells him to get ready for an interview with a Hollywood mogul who’s interested in his crime script, but after a series of mishaps, he realizes he must trek (sorry) (that actually wasn’t intentional) to the local laundrette, of which he has a crippling, lifelong fear.
It’s here where the movie starts to shift gears, and not for the last time. It’s a bit trite to blame the director for the slightly unfocused storytelling styles (is it because he’s a musician who’s a first-time director?), as it’s actually based on a story written by Withnail & I scribe Bruce Robinson (which fucking explains a lot). I do think this works to the film’s credit, because it makes everything unpredictable – no situation is off-limits for this pathetic, harried, mess of a collection of skin and other molecules. And because most of the film is so uncomfortable and awkward and second-hand-stressful to watch, one particular funny mini-gag involving a police van had me in absolute stitches for a good ten minutes (I’m still laughing about it now).
The film’s increasingly bizarre plot leaps aren’t all that out of place, thanks to its already surreal (and yes, a wee bit psychedelic) tone. And while it’s Pegg’s show of his own on-screen brilliance, most of the supporting characters are also played to perfection, especially Jack’s agent Clair (Clare Higgins). With each leap, though, it does shift tone a fair bit, and that kind of lessens any horror-based tension that a more coherent film would have had. I do wish it had stuck a bit more to its underlying theme of “everyone’s trying to kill me; everyone’s watching me” fear, or even its title, which suggests multiple neuroses that the script didn’t really deliver. While it has been described as a “low-budget semicomedy”, it seems like if the budget had been bigger, it might have sold out to some pointlessly over-trippy hallucinations. But maybe the sound would have been better (dialogue was ridiculously quiet; effects and musical cues – the latter of which provided the majority of jump scares). I’d watch it again, probably while folding my laundry.