Frightfest 2020 review: Dark Stories
Guillaume Lubrano & François Descracques' horror anthology consists of five scary stories
Written by Anton Bitel
Single mother Christine (Kristanna Loken) comes under attack from a psychopathic Chucky-like semi-animated doll that has just been delivered to her home. Bound to a chair in the basement, she tells the knife-wielding mannequin a series of five 'scary stories' to distract it from killing both her and her son Roman (who is sleeping upstairs). This opening to Guillaume Lubrano and François Descracques's Dark Stories casts Christine as a sort of Scheherazade of shocking tales, while also providing a structural frame into which the varied parts of this anthology can readily fit, lending them an overall coherence that is rare for this kind of collection (it helps that Lubrano and Descraques helm all six tales). Not only do we briefly return to Christiane and her perilous situation between each story that she tells, but these stories in different ways reflect her circumstances while modulating the response of her immediate audience.
Christine's first story, for example, also concerns a mother and son in peril, as art museum curator Alice (Delphine Chanéac ) must race to rescue her child from vicious (and beautifully realised) shape-shifting Mozambican paint monsters that can use any figurative artwork as both their hiding place and pantry. The idea here of art as both attraction and cover also mirrors Christine's own act of storytelling, in which she is providing the doll with entertainment while also concealing as much as she reveals. Similarly the second story, in which park jogger Sophie (Dorylia Calmel) struggles to escape irrational assault form a serial killer, reflects Christine's own situation, as she tussles (verbally) with the merciless, murderous doll.
The third story is very different in tone from the others. It is not just the absurdist humour - for there was already plenty of that in the art museum story - but also that it shows good (of a sort) triumphing over evil, as Franck (Sébastien Lalanne) wakes in a morgue, super-strong and immortal, and heads out to take revenge on the gangsters who shot him dead, and to rescue his abducted neighbours. If the previous two stories had expressed Christine's anxieties, in this one we are beginning to see her hopes for justice, and for the tables to be turned on her killer captor. Unsurprisingly, the doll does not like this story as much as the others.
Though different in other respects, the last two stories are united by their shared theme of faith. In one, ethnically Moroccan, Paris-born rationalist Samir (Slimane-Baptiste Berhoun) cannot quite bring himself to believe that his friend Audrey (Tiphaine Daviot) is really being endangered by a Djinn that followed her back from her travels in North Africa. And in the other (my personal favourite), unhinged old French farmer Jean Luc (Dominique Pinon) just wants British reporter Carrie (Michelle Ryan) - and his own family - to have faith in his stories of alien encounters and messianic elevation. In both these tales, incredulity - or at least a refusal to suspend disbelief - comes with consequences, as the unbelievable not only proves true, but bites back. Christine's addressee, who believes only in his own mastery of murder, should maybe listen a little more attentively to the signs in these stories, and realise that there might be something else out there more monstrous than himself.
This feature-length version of Dark Stories stitches together several episodes originally made as part of an ongoing television series, and its bilingualism, switching from French to English and back again (often within a single episode), tells us something of its intended markets. More importantly for the viewer, the film exhibits a similar fluency in multiple subgenres of horror and science fiction, deftly telling what is really just one monstrous story in a variety of filmic argots.
Director: Guillaume Lubrano, François Descracques
Screenwriters: Guillaume Lubrano, François Descracques, Victor Druillet, Norman Jangot, Fabien Adda, Marion Dauriac, Cêdric Perrin, Jean-Christophe Hervé, Davy Mourier
Cast: Kristanna Loken, Michelle Ryan, Dominique Pinon, Delphine Chanéac, John Robinson
Running time: 97 mins