If you can believe that logging onto a web site can result in your death 48 hours later, you who believe in Halloween and the tooth fairy -- you'll make more sense out of this movie than the rest of us. Fans of sci-fi will have the advantage since that's what it is: "FearDotCom" is not simply a horror film, it's science fiction. That's the first thing to understand when you consider seeing it. And, that may be all you'll understand by the time you're making your escape from the theatre.
You'll know that there's a serial killer (Stephen Rea) loose, what with 4 bodies that met their end in consistently horrific ways; you'll know that detective Mike Reilly who lives in the same world we do is investigating and gets more involved than he should for his own mental health. You'll get it that health inspector expert Terry Houston (Natascha McElhone) is far sexier than the job requires and is along with Reilly for the ride into dangerous territory. But now, understanding begins to fall apart.
Why it does is that it proposes a dimension of time:space that we're not familiar with -- a dimension that you're taken to when you log on to the fearDotCom.com website. There, you're invited by a spooky cyber hostess to join in the game. The combination of a spooky, teutonic Marlene Dietrich and an all-wise Sharon Stone, she purrs insistently, "Do you like to watch?", suggesting voyeurism and other visual delights. Her bag of tantalizing wiles is a montage of 2-frame flashes of horror images and hissing sound effects perpetrated to confuse rather than illuminate.
"Will you play", she asks, knowing you can't reply any other way than the one she intended from the moment you entered her space. And, when you click yes, it's just about over for you. This little virtual connection has set some mysterious unrelenting process in motion that will cause your death in 48 hours. But not just any death. It will come to you in a manner that represents your worst fears. You hate cockroaches? That's what will consume you. You fear subways? Guess what track you'll be on when you get run over.
Yes, some of what you see from then on is illusion or... illusory. But other things, like the crawling death that overtakes you, is represented as actual. Like said, other dimension.
Except that there's also the dimension we might call reality. Alistair Pratt, the serial killer, operates there and the idea is that he is somehow hosting that website even though he seems perfectly at home with an actual flesh-and-blood victim and a set of knives that any surgeon would find complete. Trouble is that there's no explanation of how he accomplishes the web feat. Just what HTML or JAVA code is he using?! Best not go there because there's nothing remotely credible in the technology as it exists. Which means that the weird web site and the real serial killer are disparate elements of a story that never come together. Ah, well, like said, science fiction.
Sci-fi has its own logic -- one composed and proposed by the author. And the mark of good sci-fi is consistency within the worlds and the concepts created. The first two acts of this movie are reasonably consistent but its premise brings it to a conclusion that seems more about being trapped by its own threads of thought than resolving it with a revelation, if you know what I mean.
Consider, for example, that as the victims fall pray to the yes button, and as our heroes become aware of the fate that awaits all who do, they go on clicking yes, inviting the inevitable disaster. There's a way to fight it? To end it? Call it blind faith and a writer's liberties.
Josephine Coyle wrote it from a story idea by producer Moshe Diamant and it was directed as though he knew what was going on by William Malone who has had a considerable amount of experience in worlds of horror and sci-fi. He has directed segments of "The Others" and "Tales from the Crypt" on TV and, in 1999, the film, "House on Haunted Hill". Add the mysteries of high technology to the serial killer vs cop genre and you have his cup of horror.
His players are first rate. Stephen Dorff is a far more interesting actor than his list of credits implies ("Deuces Wild", "Blade", "Cecil B. DeMented") or his work here allows. But, we willingly go with him on his tackling the unknown. What we hope for him is to take his place alongside Stephen Baldwin, Billie Crudup and, even, Brad Pitt, in terms of how they get cast. He's their type and their equal and maintains our sypathetic interest in an easygoing, intelligent manner.
Natascha McElhone (born Natasha Taylor in the UK but with no trace of an accent) delivers a good performance as co-investigator and romantic interest. Here's another performer worthy of an advancement up the steps of recognition and more and better than she's done. Think of her from 1998's "The Truman Show" and "Contagion" in 2001.
The digital work that went into creating the illusions are state of the art, while the cinematography, by Christian Sebaldt ("Addams Family Reunion"), is appropriately gritty and dark.
Rarely have actors and their computers been put to such evil, demented, warped and unexplainable use. See it if you dare.
The Soundtrack Album