Steve Khan’s Fear opens with a series of brittle images depicting a young woman (Jessie Rabieau; attractive and blonde, of course), who is preparing a bath. Such a tableau - the short’s ominous title having already stoked our expectations- is overtly familiar to horror fans, and what follows Fear’s opening shots is likewise conventional, as the girl, unnamed and in various stages of undress, is unnerved by a series of strange occurrences within her house. There is a radio that detunes itself, a shape under the bathwater, a face in the mirror; and finally, fatally, noises in the basement that the girl is compelled, against all rationality, to investigate. Over the film’s quarter of an hour runtime, we are only witness to this character’s subjection by the various threats and spooky weirdness within her house. Thus, with its recurrent, concentric plot, Fear becomes a sort of supercut; a montage highlighting the various representations of the distressed damsel trope which is so central to the horror experience.
Midway through Fear, it becomes apparent that narrative logic and plot development are to be surrendered to this whirling cumulative dynamic. What we are given in lieu of plot or narrative, is an abundance of style, which Fear features in crisp, clean spades. From the sparkling interior of the bathroom (hard and white as incisors) contrasting the soft infinity of encroaching shadows, to the immaculate close ups of Rabieau (soundtracked by the steady, metronome drip of a tap, the swirling white noise of the radio), these precisely realised aesthetics are what give structure and shape to Fear’s wry commentary on the distressed damsel archetype. At one bizarre point, a bouncing rubber duck is introduced as yet another facet to trouble our heroine; it is this sort of absurdity that should ensure Fear is filed alongside other Dadaist horror shorts such as Meshes in the Afternoon and Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou; a confrontational, suggestive and artful look at the character and meaning of horror cinema.
As the repetition builds (we see the girl take her clothes off, then put them on again, twice), we begin to consider the eternal nature of this archetype and its indispensability to the genre, which has been prevalent since Nosferatu stalked the swooning Ellen almost a century ago. Consider the countless horror covers/posters depicting women in straits of terror; the umpteen scream queens (defined in this sobriquet not by a ‘final girl’ strength, but their vulnerability); why are we drawn to this narrative motif, time and time again? (In an amusing coincidence, the same evening I saw Fear I also happened to view Ouija: which in a lot of ways reiterated the situations Fear’s heroine finds herself in - even, uncannily, down to a phantom flaming gas ring - but with far less self-awareness).
It is always interesting to see promising shorts and imagine where the talents involved will go next. For all its reflective approaches, Fear is nonetheless impeccably discomforting in the classic sense; using its confined spaces and minimal sound design to engender a creeping unease. Khan films each scene with careful composition and a real feel for light and shade. Nonetheless, a criticism would be that Fear ends with more of a whimper than a scream as [Spoiler Alert!], when we reach the end of the film, there is very little thematic payoff to what has preceded. While it is arguable that abstract art invites more consideration than it gives resolution, this reviewer feels an opportunity was wasted. However, the sense of dissatisfaction that lingers when we don’t see what happens to the girl (i.e., we don’t witness her sticky end) is possibly intentional: a gesture that defies our conditioning regarding this genre [Spoiler Ends].
Fear is a short worth seeking out; it could invite you to consider the aspects of horror that we take for granted, or it may simply give you the creeps. But one thing is for certain: you will never look at a rubber duck in the same way again!
The Movie Waffler had a chat with Steve Khan, director/ producer of Fear, about the current climate of horror, the process of filming Fear and rubber ducks.
How do you picture the landscape of horror in 2014, and where do you see Fear fitting in to that landscape?
What an interesting question. I'm not sure if the landscape in horror has changed that much over the last decade, much less in one year. To be blunt, I'm not a fan of most of the recent horror offerings. True they can be scary as hell and gory as hell - things that I love - but there has been a lack of artistry in film making for quite some time. Films like The Shinning, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and Psycho from the
1950s to the early 1980s set a high standard which hasn't been matched.
Those films and films like them created visuals that became icons to not just horror but in film in general. To do this their cinematography was exquisite, many frames akin to great photographs and great paintings.
Scenes like blood spiraling down the drain in Psycho, or Jack Nicholson wielding an axe saying: "Here's Jonny" have had an imprint on the human psyche and continue to touch us again and again.
In addition to visual, they were written with a sense of great mystery. Mystery is the single biggest factor that keeps a viewer engaged. "What did she mean by saying that?" "Why did he do that?" "What's inside that evil looking closet?" We love to ask these questions. We love to have our mind working in circles trying to figure out the answers. This, mystery and suspense, is vastly lacking in cinema in general. And even with horror, where it is most needed, it is absent far too much of the time. One example of this is the first season of American Horror Story. I was intrigued with the pilot. It scared me. I didn't know what this mystery house was all about. But as the first season progressed and the more I learned - the less of the mystery - the less scared I was. Until progressively until the season finale where I wasn't scared at all. Now, I loved the first season. I cried when the daughter saw her dead body. But as far as horror is concerned the less mystery there was the less scared I was. Despite the gore.
Now I am a fan of gore, but often times our mind's imagination of gore scares us far more than gore itself shown onscreen. To this point we as an audience have grown sophisticated and dubious when presented with it. As a young director I am hyper aware of my generations skepticism and will cut a scene that sparks it. If we see someone really shoot their brains out on YouTube it effects us far more than if we see the same scene in a movie. The movie scene just doesn't carry the same weight with the modern viewer. We don't really believe it. We have trouble suspending disbelief. Now, however, if a director sets up the same scene but allows the suicide to be just off screen, we as an audience can interject the memory of that suicide we saw on YouTube or one we make up in our own head and create the same deeply felt emotional impact.
So to ultimately answer your question I don't see Fear fitting into the landscape. In fact I hope it doesn't fit in at all. People have said that it is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and I'm great with that. Other's have said Psycho, which makes me feel honored.
Ms. Rabieau is on screen for the full 14 minutes; she has to take her clothes off, wash her hair, move around in the dark, and maintain a sense of, well, fear throughout; could you talk about the process of directing her a little?
Let me say that this kind of role for an actor - one where you are not interacting with another actor but instead reacting off the environment - is quite difficult. Actors are energized and motivated by the actions of other actors. But when you have to play against a duck, or a sound effect & visual effect that will be applied in post, or even the last feeling you just had, things get quite difficult. All this makes it all the more impressive that this was Jessie Rabideau's first acting performance in a film. It is a performance, as you stated, where she has to be completely vulnerable: physically to give up all ego and fear by acting scene after scene with little to no clothes, and emotionally by giving into the demands of the role.
Though a new actor, Jessie worked like a pro on set. In addition to having the perfect look for the part, she embodies the qualities of a great actor; she's smart but at the same time without ego. I would direct her, have her do take after take, correct her performance and make clear what I wanted and she never let that stop her or shut her down. I don't know if non-actors know this but that is the first thing a good acting teacher will teach his students: not to let yourself get shut down and not to let your ego rule you on set.
One wouldn't think so but it can be extremely difficult for new actors to give in to the demands of the role. If you think about it, it just goes against human nature for a person to let anyone dictate how they act for days on end. We naturally just want to rebel against that. Still, and amazingly to me, Jessie took direction without a hint of resistance. She was always tirelessly committed to creating the best performance possible.
And, when I asked her if she needed to rest her usual response was that she was ready to shoot the next scene. She's quite a special person and I was truly lucky to have had her play this role.
I saw Fear sat in the dark, headphones on, viewing it on a laptop. What I gained in proximity to the sound design I lost in visual scope: on the big screen, the colours towards the end, and the storm, would have looked superb. Have you exhibited it on the cinema screen? What was the reaction?
No. Not yet. We're just fresh out of post and I'm excited to see that. Especially the lightning storm that you mentioned. I can envision being in a dark cinema theatre as she stands with the candle looking out the windows. Then music gently quiets almost an ominous warning and then suddenly BAM! Thunder and lightning explode through the windows and surround her - and us - as we are bathed in white light that explodes off the screen and flashes through the room to contrast the almost black from just seconds before.
Interestingly, the shot of her looking out the windows is symbolic of her looking into the window of own mind. Before the big lightning flashes I just was speaking of filling the windows we see deep blue vine-like twitching streaks of lightning. The intention was for this lightning to look like brain neurons flashing and sputtering and going off wildly and uncontrollably. The windows, as I said, represent the windows into her mind.
The crux for her, and for us in life, is to control those neurons, to control our minds. Can we keep calm in perceived dangerous situations? Can we shut off the mind and stop it from letting fear spiral wildly out of control? That is the theme of Fear.
The opening shots of a plughole, and even Jessie's look, is reminiscent of Hitchcock. What other horror films influenced you - not just for Fear, but throughout your career?
I'm honored you think so. What a great director to be compared to. Hitchcock was a master and of course has been a great inspiration. His brilliance was the way he could create mystery and tension with what he didn't show you, with the things he left to one's mind to imagine. I love the pacing of his films; how he gave his actors time to act and react. He was a master of timing, of letting scenes run slow then hitting us with the contrast of a quick action. I used this effect again and again in directing Jessie. In Fear the contrast of pacing - of slow, slow, slow then fast - was quite important to subtly create the off balanced feeling her character and we in turn feel as an audience watching her. Stanley Kubrick is also a huge influence. As a director he started with the theme. And, I do as well. Fear is really just a film on the nature of fear. How it happens to us. How little things, often times harmless things can get stuck in our minds and spin wildly out of control. Often times we are not hurt from the perceived fear but our out of control reactions to them. The essence of martial arts is keeping calm in emotional situations. If one can do that there is hope.
There have been so many films on love. On the nature of it. On what it is. But fear? None come to mind. I'm sure there must be a few but I don't know any. And, as it is so common, so universal to all of us, I thought it was time.
Sticking with your career, what would be your dream project?
I think that Fear was pretty much a dream project. It has a theme I care about and has beautiful poetic imagery and was an absolute blast to make as well as a heart wrenching film to make. I say heart wrenching because it was a difficult project at every stage. Shooting was always a challenge and we were in post for almost a year. During that time I didn't know what I would ultimately come up with. I was rocked with emotional insecurities. I didn't know if it would turn out good or terrible. I knew it looked pretty but what if there was nothing more to it than that? What if it had no emotional effect? What if no one liked it? Like the theme of Fear, these fears played again and again in my head and had the opportunity to derail the project completely if I let them. Like the character in my film, I went on and on despite my fears and insecurities.
A dream project to me has a meaning, something that needs to be said. Something that can help or shed light somehow on our human condition in a beautiful, poetic way. That is the best!
Finally, a twofer; what are you hoping audiences will take away from the experience of watching Fear, and where/when can they see it?
I know I love to talk about theme but first off I'd it love if an audience is entertained by Fear. The worst thing you can do as an artist is waste anyone's time, to bore anyone. In my book it is a horrendous sin and the reason I spent so much time in post to polish the film. There's a great quote I heard recently: "easy films to make are hard to watch." I've found that to be universally true.
Next, I hope that people enjoy the beauty of the film. I really enjoy gorgeous images and hope that I achieved that with Fear. I hope the images stay with some. As I said before, iconic imagery is quite powerful and if I have achieved any of that then I would be proud.
And finally, ultimately it does come down to theme for me. And it doesn't have to for everyone. But if some can see themselves in my character, if they can see how fear can control them and how their mind can spin out of control. And then if they can become more conscious to that whole process, then my film would have been a true success.
As for where to see it: at the moment we're just in the festival circuit. Of course there's the trailer which is online but I know that is sorely lacking. It's funny because I'd like everyone to see the film now but the festival process makes it impossible to distribute the film to wide release before the festival run is over. So on the Facebook film page (facebook.com/fear.short) I uploaded tons of screen grabs from pretty much every scene in the film. A recent interviewer said that there are so many you could practically print them out and have a flip book for the entire film. Yeah. Pretty much you could.
Ok, all the best with Fear Steve! We really enjoyed here at The Movie Waffler.
That's good! Beware of the rubber duck!
By Benjamin Poole