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When a character in the horror/thriller FearDotCom began to talk about how much the computers and the Internet have become part of our lives, I breathed a sign of relief. The man's observations were intelligent; if the Internet can do so much good for mankind, why can't it one day turn on those who depend on it?
I had hoped FearDotCom would take this idea and turn it into a taut thriller about a dead man's curve being added to the information superhighway. Instead, FearDotCom is closer in design to Dee Snider's Strangeland, preferring to show you "icky pop-up" on a computer screen rather than satirize the electronic lifestyle most of mankind has adopted.
New York City is being plagued by a chain of bizarre deaths. An author is hit by a subway train. A German girl is found dead in her bathtub, and the police bring her boyfriend into the station screaming, only to find him dead in his cell not too long after that. The connection? All are bleeding from the eyes and nose. That, plus the fact that all of their computers are found broken. Detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) and Department of Health representative Terry Houston (Natascha McElhone) are puzzled, until a search of the victims' hard drives turns up a common thread: each visited a graphic torture website called Feardotcom.com, and even stranger, all of them died exactly 48 hours after first logging on.
As Reilly and Houston launch an investigation into the matter, a serial killer who calls himself The Doctor (Stephen Rea) prepares to broadcast the slow, painful torture of an innocent woman over the Internet. Neither side of the law is aware of the force that lurks within Feardotcom.com, a spirit that will never rest until its mystery is solved and its killer taken down.
On an average day, FearDotCom would be an incredibly easy target. The barely visible sets, the B-list cast, the gratuitous grisliness, and absence of a point to the story would earn a critic's seal of disapproval in a second. But there's something different about FearDotCom that sets itself just above the level of most gross, senseless horror flicks. Storywise, there's no denying the film is a mess, but there's something about how it was made, how director William Malone (House on Haunted Hill -- the 1999 remake) packaged Josephine Coyle's grim little screenplay, that makes it somewhat intriguing to watch.
FearDotCom has a very distinct visual style, taking place in a world where the rain hardly ever stops pouring and every building seems to be shrouded in darkness. Roger Ebert covered these bases as well in his critique, but I couldn't help sharing the same feelings after seeing this film twice. I didn't care about what happened to the main characters, as I was mainly distracted by how obviously FearDotCom ripped off the premise of Ringu, but for the life of me, I loved how everything was photographed. Forget the cheesy, CGI bugs crawling out of the walls and the incoherent storyline. I want know just how the cinematographer made the dark atmospheres come alive, overshadowing the crummy detective story taking place and reigning supreme over the freaky climactic scenes.
But to be sure, there are serious things wrong with FearDotCom. No matter how interesting the movie looks, no amount of make-up can cover up the fact that this movie operates its screenplay like a sleepwalker handles heavy machinery. The story is a thinly-spread wreck, successful neither as a horror film nor a detective thriller. It's premise receives messy execution, and plot holes are scattered around from frame one onward.
Why is it that no one in this movie listens to one another? In discovering that people died after logging onto a specific website, Mike's first instinct is to go there himself. Understandable, but after he starts feeling some strange effects, he warns Terry not to do the same. So what does she do? No prizes for guessing that she becomes too intrigued to resist logging on.
Also incomprehensible is that while those who log onto Feardotcom.com die from their fears coming to life, Mike's phobia fails to be explored (fear of not being asked back for Blade II, perhaps?), and for a spirit who wants their murder to be solved, the force doing the killing doesn't give its victims much time to get on the case. What if some guy in Belgium logged on? 48 hours isn't exactly enough time for him to fly to the United States and conduct an impromptu investigation.
As for the acting, Dorff mugs his way through his part, McElhone musters up enough credibility to survive the picture (she's no Naomi Watts, though), and Jeffrey Combs appears in a minor role, reminding his Re-Animator fans not to give up the ship yet. But Stephen Rea's performance as The Doctor is just too hilarious.With his flat, monotone accent, he's about as scary as someone lecturing on the economic structure of Russia.
I have to admit that FearDotCom could've been a lot worse. I survived two viewings of the flick with my sanity intact, appreciating and disliking the same filmmaking elements both times. FearDotCom isn't everyone's cup of tea, but in a "passing by an accident" sort of way, it's worth watching some of the time -- kinda like a pop-up ad you leave up for a while before clicking away.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for violence, grisly images of torture, nudity and language.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.