A Fantastic Fear of Everything is nothing it attempts to be. Aiming for surreal and silly, it plays like an over-calculated drudge through tired gags to a false conclusion. Along the way the film shifts tone haphazardly, stomps on its own transparent wit, and muddies themes with confounding narrative diversions. The physical and verbal tics of omnipresent star Simon Pegg are the only saving grace, wringing a few mild laughs from a staid script.
Jack (Pegg) is a struggling writer stuck penning children’s stories he detests. While researching a new project on Victorian serial killers he dubs “Decades of Death,” Jack becomes unhinged, convinced that every creak in his dingy apartment or gust of wind outside is someone or something coming to kill him. After several sleepless nights and with his mania reaching an intolerable peak, Jack’s agent Clair (Clare Higgins) phones to inform the recluse that a Hollywood agent is interested in the project and wishes to meet. Deciding to venture out of his home for the occasion, Jack first needs to stop at the laundromat to freshen up his filthy clothes, a task that may seem mundane but for reasons explained in belabored detail is terror-inducing for the broken man. In addition to facing this fear he must deal with a kitchen knife superglued to his hand, antagonistic laundromat owners and customers, and a very real threat that lurks in the shadows.
Limited largely to two locations, A Fantastic Fear of Everything is more airless than effectively confining. Save a couple clever uses of the spaces – some Raimi-esque camera movements in the apartment and a maddeningly incomplete list of washing instructions at the laundromat – they don’t enhance or assist in representing a fragile psyche. The plot and a worsening state of mind are communicated through blunt, if harried, voiceover and Pegg’s manic mannerisms. First time writer/director Crispian Mills makes the mistake of using his main character as an exposition depository, getting through story necessities to indulge in overlong asides that do little to inform or engross.
When Mills’ film would be better served by atmosphere and mood, he opts for wacky for the sake of being wacky. To work up the nerve to leave his apartment, Jack speaks with friend Professor Friedkin (Paul Freeman), their conversation presented as a bizarre fever dream that somehow shakes Jack into action. We’re then subjected to two extended scenes featuring rap songs that give Jack the strength he needs to begin his journey. A stop-motion animation sequence at a crucial point in the final act – again narrated by our fearful protagonist – is well done by Mills’ co-director Chris Hopewell, but to no other end than to be something unique to toss into the mix.
The rush to be quirky is the fatal flaw of A Fantastic Fear of Everything. Unlike Pegg’s collaborations with Edgar Wright, this film doesn’t absorb its influences into a cheerful work of self-reference; instead, it clumsily mashes together genre references from myriad sources, including but certainly not limited to Hitchcock, Polanski, and Tim Burton. And in case you didn’t notice, the main character has the same first name (and deteriorating mental state) as the lead in The Shining, while the friend he seeks counsel from shares a surname with the director of The Exorcist.
Failing as slapstick farce or meditative statement, this film’s content is as dreary and uninspiring as its murky cinematography. It’s a horror-inspired comedy jumble that’s completely tone deaf when it comes to both horror and comedy. At least it’s consistent.