A quirky gem of a film, Crispian Mill's feature film debut A Fantastic Fear of Everything fits well into the British tradition of horror-comedy, where slightly-crazed logic flows along with an acceptance of the weird, the existential and the eccentric. While not without problems, the film has a strong heart, anchored by a great performance by Simon Pegg at his nerdy best.
Pegg plays Jack, a children's book author who is attempting to break into the film world. He has written a script based on the lives and work of Victorian-age serial killers. This work has taken its toll on his psyche, and he now lives in constant fear of murder. During one particularly scary night, he is convinced that he is being set upon by child carolers, an unknown phantom, and the ladies at the local launderette, the centre of all his paranoia.
Mills draws the spectator into this strange and off-kilter world through a mind-bending combination of fish-eye lens, elongated corridors, and a stop-motion hedgehog. Pegg provides the perfect image of the down-and-out writer, so obsessed with his work that he becomes oblivious to even the most basic daily chores, even though he is aware of his own creeping madness.
The majority of the narrative is set over the course of a few hours on a fateful night when Jack has the opportunity to meet with a Hollywood producer; fate and an ill-advised attempt at using his oven as a clothes dryer force him out in the world, full of madmen and thieves. As we are completely within Jack's perspective, the film slowly tightens the screws until we, too, wonder if maybe Jack is right, and maybe the world is out to get him.
The film is not without problems, as it pretty common with debut works. The beginning features a great deal of voice-over narration, in order to set the story and plot. Given that we are supposed to be in a strange and confusing world, this is unnecessary; a few well-planned shots of various items indicating Jack's status as writer and his current work would have been sufficient.
To be fair, the vast majority of voice-over narrations in films are failures, so it's not surprising that it doesn't work here. It merely delays the audience's plunge into the madness. Once the film gets going, though, voice-over is dropped in favour of thought narration, which works much better, especially when Jack also talks out loud to himself.
This is not a film about gags, though, or side-splitting laughter; it is a meditative humour, the kind where laughter feels like conspiracy with the devil. The darker the film gets, the better it is. Pegg shows he is much more than just the comic relief (really, what other actor can run around a film in dirty underpants, and make us both feel both laughter and fear, for him and ourselves?) It's the kind of film that, watched in a dark theatre on a rainy day, will leave you wondering just who might be the wolf in sheep's clothing, looking over your shoulder and trying to remember where you left your carving knife.
Review originally published in connection with its U.K. theatrical release in June 2012. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, February 7; including the Cinema Village in New York; check local listings for more information. It will also be available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms.