With 1999's "House on Haunted Hill
," director William Malone proved that, as much of a failure he was at directing actors, he was a true talent with filming unsettling scenes of horror. The same could be said about his latest picture, "FearDotCom," which is somewhat of a mess when it comes to the characters and writing, but is a better movie in every respect. Unremittingly grim and unshakably intense, "FearDotCom" comes equipped with a fabulously inventive premise that could also act as a warning on the possible hidden dangers of the Internet. Mostly, though, it is an excuse for Malone to ratchet up an almost nonstop tidal wave of ghastly images as deliriously off-kilter as anything a major studio has had the courage to release in some time.
After a series of mysterious deaths begin plaguing New York City with all of the victims seemingly untouched, despite bleeding from the nose and eyes, detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) and health inspector Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) partner up to investigate. Their research leads them to feardotcom.com, a web site complete with a live death cam that all of the victims logged onto precisely 48 hours before dying. After viewing the site themselves, the clock immediately starts ticking for Mike and Terry's fate, as their investigation must make way for horrific hallucinations and virus-like symptoms.
"FearDotCom" is burdened with a sloppy screenplay (written by Josephine Coyle) and even flimsier characterizations, which makes its constant frightening atmosphere an even more welcome respite. Director Malone, along with cinematographer Christian Sebaldt, admittedly go overboard when it comes to cloaking the film in darkness. While filmmaker David Fincher basically did the same thing in 1995's "Se7en," he at least knew that, to be realistic, some scenes had to have light in them. In the world of "FearDotCom," however, apparently light bulbs have not yet been invented. This technical misjudgment aside, the movie is a brilliant example of mood and foreboding taking over the reigns of the success of the entire picture. Getting wrapped up in the scary, hellish tone that Malone has set up for the viewer is quite a treat for anyone not bothered in identifying with the characters, just as long as they're unsettled.
Natascha McElhone (1998's "Ronin") and Stephen Dorff (2002's "Deuces Wild
") headline the film as Terry Huston and Mike Reilly. They have made many impressive appearances in the past, but have been asked to underact here to the point of nearly being comatose. The undercooked romance that sparks between them is so lifeless that it would have been wise to cut it out. In comparison, Stephen Rea (1999's "In Dreams
") is over-the-top in the best kind of way, genuinely creepy and unhinged as a serial killer only known as The Doctor, who enjoys brutally torturing his subjects before slaughtering them.
It is amazing in today's harsh rating restrictions that the MPAA has given "FearDotCom" an R. The film does not have an overabundance of gore, but it is unmerciless in its depiction of violence and torture. From the unnerving web site images to a grotesque invasion of cockroaches to the abundance of flash cuts and strobe lighting, the picture is definitely not recommended for the weak of heart, and such a statement should not be taken lightly.
In spite of its many pitfalls (and there are quite a few, including even the unconvincing substitute of Luxembourg for Manhattan), "FearDotCom," like the deadly web site it is named after, works its way underneath the skin like few movies have in recent memory. Short of snuff films or actual atrocities in the world, the film is about as close to a nightmare come to life as you are likely to find. Whether experiencing the thought of such sounds like a fun way to spend two hours is strictly up to the individual moviegoer to decide. Don't say you haven't been warned.
©2002 by Dustin Putman