A Fantastic Fear of Everything: Film Review
This Simon Pegg-headlining horror comedy about a paranoid author suffers from too little humour.
LONDON – Simon Pegg is an engaging comic talent with a healthy transatlantic career, so he deserves respect for putting his faith in this low-budget British comedy, which blends horror movie elements with stop-motion animation scenes. But Pegg, who has a producer’s credit here, also needs to sharpen up his quality control instincts. Because A Fantastic Fear of Everything is a rambling misfire which aims for the macabre tone of classic Ealing Studios productions like The Ladykillers, and falls woefully short.
The first-time director Crispian Mills made his name in Britain fronting the psychedelic retro-rockers Kula Shaker, who briefly enjoyed mainstream success in the 1990s. But he also comes from strong cinematic stock as the grandson of stiff-upper-lip screen legend Sir John Mills, and son of actress Hayley Mills and acclaimed film director Roy Boulting. Sadly, it appears movie-making talent is not genetic, because this half-baked debut is unlikely to generate much commercial interest beyond Pegg’s most devoted fans.
Pegg plays Jack Nife, a former children’s author whose life has descended into straggly-bearded paranoia and agoraphobia, partly due to the effects of researching a book on Victorian serial killers. A virtual prisoner in his untidy East London apartment, he begins to hallucinate murderous assailants and ghostly threats in every shadowy corner. There are promising echoes of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Polanski’s Repulsion in these scenes of creeping nocturnal dread, but Mills never manages to muster much dramatic tension beyond a few minor jolts and false alarms.
Reluctantly dragged into daylight for lunch with his literary agent, Jack learns that a Hollywood executive wants to meet to discuss buying the film rights to his book, a potential life saver for his ailing career. But the meeting requires him to visit his local laundrette, a key source of psychological trauma since being abandoned there by his mother in childhood. For reasons too groaningly contrived to explain, he also has a large kitchen knife stuck to his hand with super-strong glue.
The final act finds Jack chained up in the dingy laundrette basement, at the mercy of an unlikely serial killer connected to the Vietnamese mafia, which makes his overblown paranoia seem justified after all. This is all potentially rich material for a dark farce, but A Fantastic Fear of Everything somehow manages to botch almost every opportunity for both suspense and humour. The dialogue, heavily reliant on voiceover monologue, is only fitfully funny at best. Pegg is a skilled enough comedian to give these leaden lines a certain zing, but he cannot conceal a fatal lack of actual jokes.
Worse still, the plot is so implausible and illogical in places it almost feels like the cast are improvising on the spot. This becomes especially problematic during the final showdown with the killer, whose motives are so dramatically feeble that the film-makers eventually give up on him entirely, downgrading his grisly crimes into minor acts of vandalism. At no point do any of the characters appear to be in real jeopardy.
The screenplay is credited to Mills, although it is partly based on a recent novella by Bruce Robinson, Paranoia in the Launderette. Robinson has a cult following in British cinema as a director and screenwriter, largely on the strength of his autobiographical 1987 comedy Withnail and I. With its grubby London interiors, foulmouthed dialogue and shabby slacker protagonist, A Fantastic Fear of Everything seems to be aiming for a similar mix of scabrous surrealism and grimy humour. But it lacks the spiky wit, sharp observation or narrative drive to even inhabit the same ball park. No wonder Robinson’s name does not appear in the credits.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything is not wholly without merit. Pegg is always an appealing screen presence, even in weak material, while the stop-motion animation sequences lend a certain hand-made charm to proceedings. Then again, director Paul King’s low-budget 2009 feature Bunny and the Bull was a similarly dark British comedy about a housebound neurotic, complete with childlike animation elements, which displayed far more invention and wit. Bringing little honor to his illustrious family name, it is difficult to imagine Mills directing again after this self-indulgent shambles, which will forever remain a bizarre footnote on Pegg’s otherwise mostly solid filmography.
Production companies: Indomina Productions, Keel Films, Pinewood Studios
Cast: Simon Pegg, Amara Karan, Claire Higgins, Paul Freeman
Directors: Crispian Mills, Chris Hopewell
Producers: Geraldine Patten, Crispian Mills
Executive Producers: Johnny Fewings, Jasbinder Singh Mann, Steve Norris, Simon Pegg, Mick Southworth
Writer: Crispian Mills
Music: Michael Price
Cinematography: Simon Chaudoir
Editor: Dan Roberts
Sales Agent: Universal
Rated 15 (UK), 100 minutes