The struggling writer on the edge is now a well-established archetype in Hollywood character horror, from The Shining's homicidally possessed Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) to Johnny Depp's certifiable Secret Window scribe. There's no Stephen King source for this blustering, self-billed "semi-comedy', which casts Simon Pegg as its tormented scribbler and is helmed by Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills.
The "semi" is significant, as A Fantastic Fear of Everything never fully commits to being anything - rather, it's comedy in some moments, exaggerated Gothic horror in others, psychological melodrama in others, dark-hued children's animation in others still.
If you're thinking this sounds like the definition of all over the shop, you're not wrong. Mills establishes an air of attention deficit disorder from the beginning, relying on a wryly manic voiceover track from Pegg to tie the disparate elements together. It works well enough as a through line, giving the narrative a much-needed spine around which to shape itself, but despite Pegg's everyman charm there's no way for a voiceover to run throughout an entire film without becoming oppressive.
In one way, this works as a means of establishing our hero's mindset - Pegg's Jack is trapped completely in his own overactive brain. Driven to crippling paranoia by his research into Victorian serial killers, he spends much of the film's early portions scuttling twitchily around his grim Hackney flat, convinced that every mundane occurrence is a sign of his impending doom.
It's a curiously extreme portrait of psychotic illness which does, at least in these early scenes, feel as though it's written by someone with real interest in the subject. But Mills's focus is too frenetic for Jack's issues to ultimately seem anything other than shallow, even after a subplot which sees him visit a psychiatrist to unravel his childhood traumas.
As has been the case with Pegg's previous solo projects, this isn't a script which uses him to his fullest potential. He's at his best bringing wry nuance to the buttoned-down everyman (i.e. every role Edgar Wright's ever cast him in), rather than ramping the bug-eyed mania up to 11 as he's asked to do here. The effect is compounded by just how isolated he remains throughout - by the very nature of his shut-in personality, the film's most sustained dynamic is between Jack and his own internal monologue.
He shares a single scene with his agent (Claire Higgins on cheerfully scenery-chewing form) and later his shrink (Paul Freeman, ditto), and there's a tokenistic love interest (Amara Karan) introduced around the halfway mark, but you're left overwhelmingly with the sense that this is someone with no substantial relationships at all. While that can make for its own brand of tragic comedy, in this case it simply makes it harder to invest in his strange, self-reflexive existence.
Mills must as least be credited with a vision that feels more or less entirely unique. You'll be hard pushed to name anything this reminds you of, and there are moments - notably a surreal late animated sequence which blends together Jack's past as a children's storywriter with his present as a crime novelist - of real freshness. But the writer-director's so busy throwing everything at the wall that he allows many of his film's genuinely funny, frightening beats to get lost in the noise.