After watching FearDotCom, one senses that its director, William Malone, challenged himself to toss in every modern horror cliché. Spooky little girls dressed in ghostly white clothes, angry dogs that bark as though possessed, a deserted subway. That’s just in the first five minutes, and there are at least five more, including the ever-popular creepy abandoned factory.
Because FearDotCom is so over-the-top and strangely silly, you could suppose these clichés might have been tossed in as an in-joke for horror buffs. The movie is so sluggish, though, that it feels like the same old slavish adherence to schlock-scare tactics. Malone does have a gift for generating nightmarish images that will be hard to burn out of your brain. But the movie’s narrative hook is way too muddled to be an effectively chilling guilty pleasure.
Detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) is used to finding dead bodies in New York City, but rarely are corpses found post-mortem with hemorrhaging eyes and noses. This is what awaits him at several recent murder sites. Fearing the worst – an Ebola outbreak – city health inspector Terry Houston (Natascha McElhone) joins Reilly on the case.
Together, they discover that all the victims had wild hallucinations after visiting the same Web site – www.fear.com. Their deaths occurred 48 hours after logging on to the site, and the bleeding eyes probably weren’t caused by sitting too close to the screen.
The main suspect is The Doctor (Stephen Rea), a serial killer who enjoys broadcasting his crimes over the Internet and tormenting Reilly with boastful letters. But he may be working with someone else, and to solve the murders, Reilly and Houston must log on to the Web site and put their own lives in jeopardy.
Malone clearly is looking to make Se7en for the Internet age, and he apes that film’s dark production scheme right down to the jars filled with questionable fluids at a killer’s apartment. It’s got a nicely polished, desolate look, but too often, Malone goes against logic just to establish atmosphere. Most public health offices would have fluorescent lighting and cubicles, not smoky, dark offices with five-watt light bulbs and battered, old desks.
Admittedly, if you’re going to see FearDotCom, you’re not looking for a realistic mirror-view of the real world. But you’re probably not going for some truly low-rent sermonizing about the evils of the Internet either. As he prepares to gut his latest victim, The Doctor talks about how the cold, disconnected World Wide Web can only be “personalized” through intimate murder. This bit induces the least howls, however. Hearing Rea intone lines such as “You suffer from the hero’s curse of hope” with a drawl that sounds exactly like Andy Rooney is embarrassing, and as far from frightening as it can get. Dorff and McElhone have no chemistry together, but at least they’re inoffensive.
Knocking down the pedigree of classy foreign, male actors is old hat for Malone. He reduced Geoffrey Rush to a scenery-chomping hambone in 1999’s House on Haunted Hill. Nor are the endless scenes of weird torture, which he also featured in that film. Here, such scenes create distinctly unsettling split-second snippets of terror.
Malone’s got the weird and disturbing visuals locked down tight. And FearDotCom would have been a Z-grade endeavor no matter what. But if Malone had gotten his hands on a script that aspired to be something more than an Internet-themed retread of What Lies Beneath, at least it might have been guilty fun.