Overstuffed with nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, vintage Hammer Films, The Door with Seven Locks, Endless Night, and Roger Corman's Poe movies, the plodding horror-comedy mélange A Fantastic Fear of Everything is clearly the work of hardcore movie buffs. Simon Pegg stars as Jack Nife, a former children's author who's become an ultra-paranoid recluse while researching a book on Victorian serial killers. Utterly convinced someone's out to murder him, he spends most of his time fumbling around his cruddy flat, clutching a kitchen knife, peering around corners and behind shower curtains, prattling on about dodgy evildoers. Suggesting a cross between Polanski's Repulsion and an episode of Mr. Bean, these opening scenes quickly wear out their welcome, the same basic jokes repeated ad nauseam.
Eventually, after what feels like half the film, Jack works up the nerve to leave his flat to meet with a hotshot Hollywood exec interested in licensing his book, and zaniness ensues to increasingly diminished returns. A Fantastic Fear of Everything is essentially a series of progressively tedious sketch routines begging for a more fluid narrative framework and characterizations beyond simplistic movie homages. The film is an ideal vehicle for dark farce, a stylistic pastiche Pegg's most frequent collaborator Edgar Wright would undoubtedly turn into the sort of self-reflexive comedy that uses genre as a contextual element rather than the primary tool, but in the hands of its rookie filmmakers, former Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills and music-video director Chris Hopewell, it fails to realize its true potential. Pegg, who also co-produced the film, is a prodigious comedic talent, his quick wit and everyman appeal the redeeming factor of many subpar comedies; strands of his amiable persona are found in the film's more tolerable bits, but even this seasoned vet's unique voice is lost amid the glut of references to other work.
Visually, A Fantastic Fear of Everything is a predictable mix of stark, expressionistic black and bright red, but a pair of stop-motion sequences—one a Tim Burton-esque parable about a particularly nasty serial killer, the other a climactic fable about two hedgehog brothers who learn the true meaning of happiness—inject some novelty into the proceedings. However incongruous they are to the rest of the film, these sequences, thanks to their intricate design and thematic inventiveness, represent Hill and Hopewell's most inspired moments, when coherent storytelling somehow forces its way into the otherwise shoddy narrative. For once, the wheels stop spinning freely and find some actual ground to tread, but it isn't long before we're whisked back to the hackneyed genre goulash that's only fit to remind us of the better films we could be watching.