A Fantastic Fear of Everything, Alex de la Iglesia, Amara Karan, based on a short story, British comedies, British films, Bruce Robinson, Bunny and the Bull, Burke & Hare, childhood fears, Chris Hopewell, cinema, Clare Higgins, comedies, crime novelists, Crispian Mills, Decades of Death, Dr. Friedkin, eyeballs, fear, film reviews, films, Guy Ritchie, Hanoi Handshake Killer, Harold the Hedgehog, Hayley Mills, horror-comedies, I Sell the Dead, Kerry Shale, Kula Shaker, laundromats, Movies, paranoia, Paul Freeman, Quentin Tarantino, serial killers, SImon Pegg, Terry Gilliam, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Final Countdown, The Hendon Ogre, Time Bandits, voice-over narration, Wes Anderson, Withnail and I
There’s something about an “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to filmmaking that’s always appealed to me. Perhaps it was because Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) were two of my favorite films growing up and neither of those films understood the words “restraint” or “over-indulgence.” Perhaps it’s because I developed an early love for Tarantino and Ritchie’s hyperkinetic, restless bullet-ballets: the former contorted his traditional narratives into fantastic new balloon animals while the latter never met a camera-angle, editing trick or musical cue that he didn’t love. When a filmmaker throws everything at the screen, and it sticks, the results can be some of the most thrilling, eye-popping cinema I’ve ever seen. I never tire of Wes Anderson’s immaculate miniatures-writ-large and if Alex de la Iglesia can sometimes be the model of restraint, he’s more often the device for delivering machine-gun-armed circus clowns and silver-bodypaint-adorned Jesus bankrobbers. I love small, quiet, subtle films, especially horror films, but it’s no coincidence that three of my favorite films of the past decade have been I Sell the Dead (2008), Bunny and the Bull (2009) and Burke and Hare (2010), all three of which throw so much material/effects/multi-media/razzle-dazzle at the audience that they’re almost endurance matches. While Crispian Mills debut film A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012) may not be quite as perfect as the aforementioned classics, it’s just close enough to deserve a place with the pack.
After a truly dynamic animated opening sequence, we’re introduced to our hero, Jack (Simon Pegg), a children’s author who has decided to expand his horizons with a book about serial killers. Unfortunately for poor Jack, he has a tendency to be…well…afraid of everything and he quickly begins to obsesses about the various Victorian slashers, such as The Hendon Ogre and Crippen, that he researches. Even worse, he begins to think that insidious killers are actually after him, leading him to superglue a large kitchen knife to his hand. After his long-suffering agent gets Jack a meeting with the mysterious Harvey Humphries (Kerry Shale), a film producer interested in turning his research on serial killers into a movie, Jack must get over his intense agoraphobia and prepare to actually leave his house. After his usual laundry method (washing in the sink, drying in the oven) goes horribly awry, Jack must venture out to that most dreaded of public places: the laundromat. Not only have laundromats always been at the secret center of Jack’s endless phobias but there’s also a new killer nicknamed The Hanoi Handshake Killer running around. As Jack leaves his home, knife glued to hand, he must come to grips with the source of his childhood trauma, solve a local mystery and figure out whether he wants to stick with the hedgehog that made him famous or follow his dreams into the true-crime stories that haunt his dreams. Along the way, he might just find love. He also might get into an argument with a serial killer about the validity of The Final Countdown and hair metal vs gangsta rap, of course, but he definitely might find love.
Although it may seem overly reductive, perhaps the best “easy” descriptor of A Fantastic Fear of Everything would be Wes Anderson directing a Terry Gilliam film as envisioned by Guy Ritchie. From the opening credit sequence to the closing one, AFFOE never sits still, spinning endlessly like a perpetual motion machine. Director/writer Mills (the son of actress Hayley Mills and member of Brit-rock band Kula Shaker), along with cinematographer Simon Chaudoir, have managed to craft a film that both visually and aurally inventive, hyperkinetic and fast-paced, yet inherently human and character-driven. This is no mean feat when there’s this much stuff flying around. At various points, we get super-stylized camera shots (the opening close-up of Pegg’s eye, which rotates out to make it seem as if he’s on the floor, yet is finally revealed to him by the wall, is nothing short of genius), nifty animated sequences (the paper-doll murder explanation is super cool and the claymation Harold the Hedgehog sequence is good enough to be its own short) and inventive use of sound (there’s a great moment where the sound begins loud and non-diagetic before becoming cracked and tinny as Jack walks into the launderette). The colors are all gorgeous and vibrant, looking like nothing so much as one of the aforementioned Anderson’s candy-colored epics.
In the pivotal role of Jack, Pegg is as reliably solid as ever. He manages to bring just the right amount of nice-guy restraint to balance out the bottomless ocean of neuroses that is Jack: too much in either direction and the character would be either insufferable or as bland as milquetoast. As such, however, we get some truly great Pegg moments, including the scene where he gives change to begging children, via used sock, through his mail slot or the aforementioned bit where he argues with his potential killer about whether hair metal or gangster rap was the more valid cultural entertainment. The rest of the cast, particularly Alan Drake as the daffy “community support police officer” Tony, are all excellent but this is truly Pegg’s show: he gets the most screen-time, by a yard, and relishes it.
There are a laundry-list of reasons this film shouldn’t have worked. For one thing, this kind of hyper-kinetic storytelling can easily dissolve into mush when done wrong: just look at Ritchie’s post-Snatch filmography (including Sherlock Holmes, please and thank you) or the brain-dead Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) for proof. Mills is a new, untested director coming from not only a famous family but a famous rock band: there’s no reason this shouldn’t have smelled and tasted like a vanity project. The actual plot (guy is afraid of everything, must get to meeting) is pretty thin and the final twist wraps things up in such a stereotypically happy, upbeat ending that it threatens to make everything before it seem like subtle parody, like a Jack Handey aphorism taken too far.
Against all odds, however, A Fantastic Fear of Everything works. And it works spectacularly well, if I might add. The script is sharp and clever, full of laugh-out-loud scenes, dialogue and ingeniously clever plot details. The animated sequences are all fresh and fit in perfectly with the rest of the film, as well as contributing to the overall themes of the film (how one’s imagination can imprison one, if not careful). The acting is uniformly top-notch and the cinematography and sound design are exemplary. Truth be told, short of a truly embarrassing scene where Pegg mugs along to a rap song (this is almost as nerve-gratingly mortifying as the worst moments of The Office) and some minor issues with structure, there really isn’t much wrong with the film. If you can handle a little silliness and some self-referential moments, A Fantastic Fear of Everything is actually a pretty smart peek into the issues that make us all the stupid little humans that we are. For my money, I’m more than willing to give Jack a place on Simon Pegg’s Character Wall of Fame and I’m more than eager to find out what Crispian Mills comes up with next.