AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 101 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mike Black Reilly is an NYPD detective who is called to the scene of a mysterious death in the subway system. The victim, Polidori, exhibits bleeding from his eyes and other orifices and, by the frozen look on his face, appears to have seen something horrifying before being hit by a train. Department of Health researcher Terry Huston is intrigued by the find as well, particularly when several more victims show up with identical symptoms and, after ruling out a contagious virus, Terry and Mike team up to discover what might be killing these people, and after some more digging for clues they eventually discover that all of the victims’ computers crashed shortly before their passings….
Sort of a cross between Seven and The Ring, along with a whiff of the soon to be popular ‘torture porn’ subgenre, Fear Dot Com has a reputation as a really bad movie, which may be one reason why it’s taken me until now to watch it, but within just a couple of minutes the movie didn’t seem that bad at all, something which perhaps shouldn’t have actually surprised me considering that I have a great fondness for director William Malone’s supernatural chiller The House On Haunted Hill [which our own Matt Wavish once reviewed as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and I agree with him entirely] and even dare I say it his earlier Alien rehash Creature, which I didn’t realise he’d directed until just now, is lots of fun too, though possibly mostly because Klaus Kinski was allowed to go totally over the top in it and nobody goes totally over the top better than Klaus. In any case, Fear Dot Dom is seriously flawed, largely due to the confused script from Josephine Coyle and Holly Payberg-Torroija which fails to make much sense and gives its characters some really shoddy dialogue to spout, but it has quite a strong atmosphere of dread and a real sense of evil, plus an interesting look to it, some fine touches [it’s a triumph of set design, for a start], and a few very well done scenes, though it never becomes as frightening as you want it to. It’s no total disaster though, and a bit of rewriting by other hands may well have worked wonders.
The film began life as a story from prolific producer Moshe Diamant, and was a co-production between Luxembourg and the US. Shot entirely in the former, partly on sets left over from The Musketeer, it was originally intended to be a straight-to-DVD release like many of Diamant’s movies until Franchise Pictures became interested and used their deal with Warner Bros. to get the film a theatrical release in many countries. Malone cut one rather good sequence set in a mushroom factory, but the MPAA originally gave the film an ‘NC-17’ rating and the film went back and forth between the censors and the filmmakers until arriving at a final cut. I doubt we’ll ever see a ‘director’s cut’, because Fear Dot Com, despite its timely premise [death by internet!] which was exploited by having its actual website called ‘feardotcom.com’, was nothing less than a bomb at the box office. You often can’t tell what will do well and what won’t – I reckon if the film came out now it may do rather better. Then again, Star Stephen Dorff said it was terrible and would have it removed from his resume if he could, which really is saying something considering some of the rubbish he’s been in!
The opening scene shows off Christian Sebaldt’s striking cinematography and Jerome Latour’s clever set design right from the beginning, as we follow a man [and yes, it’s Udo Kier!] descending to an underground railway station, carrying a book called ‘The Secret Soul Of The Internet’, and in some kind of panic. His glasses fall off and he picks them up, sees a dog sitting in the distance watching him, then also sees a little girl bouncing a ball. Compelled to follow her, he runs across the train track and is hit and killed by a train. For a while after, Dorff and co-star Natascha McElhone do seem to be following somewhat in the footsteps of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as they investigate this, and other similar deaths amidst constant rain and muted light, though the primary colour schemes here seem to largely be of green and blue. As the eerie details, from a seemingly crazy German in a police station with bleeding eyes to Terry’s boss crashing his car in some kind of terror to the face of a demon caught on camera [genuinely unsettling shot this, even if it appears on the poster for the film!], pile up, the resemblances to the creepy world of Samara, or should I say Sadako, become more and more pronounced, with even very similar structuring. This time though as well as some kind of supernatural curse and revenge we also have a serial killer who tortures women and has it filmed so folk can access the horror on a deadly website called ‘FearDotCom’ and play a game, a game whereby, if the player looses, the website will channel negative energy into him or her and make the player a victim of his or her’s deepest fears.
All this is interesting stuff but not really refined into a coherent screenplay, and, while sometimes a film can benefit from leaving stuff that is unexplained [and it’s good for setting up potential sequels too], this one leaves far too much in the air then it needed to and it really feels like the writers couldn’t be bothered to tell us, for instance, why a serial killer would be running a website if said site is also being controlled by the ghost of his first victim. The storytelling is incredibly chaotic, and yet I quite enjoyed Fear Dot Com. Maybe some of that was due to me expecting the worst, but its really dark atmosphere gripped me even if the film wasn’t giving me enough scary moments [a horde of terrible looking CGI bugs even Brendan Fraser would have laughed at doesn’t count as scary], despite Nicholas Pike’s often very sinister scoring, and I for one certainly liked, for example, the way the film’s climax was shot in blue and sepia tinting just like a silent film, even if by then I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on and I’m not sure the writers did either. I also admired the way that the killer’s abode seems designed to look like the contents of his warped psyche had spilled out of his head, and Stephen Rea [it’s no big secret he’s the killer, it’s revealed quite early on] manages to be genuinely unsettling with his unnerving line readings, despite some of the terrible stuff he has to deliver. And, while the ghost girl is straight out of Kill Baby Kill, I also liked that there were some somewhat more obscure movie references than normal, like graffiti saying: “Dr. Gogol”.
When Fear Dot Com came out I remember reading about how nasty it was in the way it had women being tortured, but actually [at least in the released version] it hardly shows you anything at all. There are intense moments, to be sure, but either the camera cuts away just as the violence begins, or we just see quick flashes of unpleasant images. This isn’t really like the Saw films, some of which really seemed to me to be questionable in the way they served up graphic torture as exciting entertainment [I have very mixed feelings about this franchise, and may go through and review all the films soon]. Along with us not really seeing much of Fear Dot Com’s central website, the film instead relying on the reactions of the victims to imply what terrors it contains [yet seducing the viewer to want to see more and more nasty stuff with the way some of these scenes are done, such as the sexy female voice asking: “Do you want more”?, and therefore question his or her morality] , this is a rather more subtle film than you would expect. Like many classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the original Halloween, Fear Dot Com makes you think, after the first time you’ve seen it, that you’ve seen a considerably more brutal film than you actually have, and Malone, while no great shakes as a director really, deserves credit for going down this route.
Dorff and the lovely McElhone are fine though don’t quite have enough chemistry, and for the horror buff Jeffrey Combs puts in one of his always fun appearances. Fear Dot Com poor reputation isn’t to me really deserved. It’s something of a mess and always feels like it’s on the verge of getting really good rather than just good-ish, while it seems to prefer to be just downbeat and even depressing than actually scary, but it certainly has its merits including, amongst its many borrowings, some great ideas which could possibly be re-used in a better film.