| September 3, 2002

Many of the best horror films have been cautionary tales, often extensions of our hesitation to embrace fully technological or scientific advances. At first glance, it seems that feardot.com may join those ranks, boasting an impressive cast (Stephen Dorff of Blade and Backbeat, Natascha McElhone of Ronin and soon to be seen in the Solaris remake, and Stephen Rea, still best remembered in the States for The Crying Game). The time is ripe for a film to truly exploit cultural anxieties about the Internet and all this mysterious link implies. Unfortunately, feardot.com isn’t the film to do it. What we get instead is a strange mix of What Lies Beneath, 8MM and The Watcher, owing its look to a whole other range of films that include Se7en and The Cell. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t mean that this film comes close to the depressive creepiness of Se7en or the dreaminess of The Cell. More than once I felt like I was watching an extended Nine Inch Nails music video or a homogenized Brothers Quay film. Either would have been more satisfying.
Like Signs, only more irritatingly, this film alludes to action that occurs either off screen or amidst the muddy darkness the often fills the screen. Not that I’d really want to see most of the action alluded to, because the feardotcom site is actually a snuff site, where people can log on to watch an innocent girl be tortured and killed.
At the end of it all, feardot.com is a let down, serving up nothing more than an old fashioned ghost story. The kind of ghost story that seems a bit naïve when translated wholesale into the modern world. Sure, there are vague comparisons of the Internet to the synapses in the brain and insinuations of the perversity of human nature when allowed to run rampant and without restriction. But the film finally all comes down to a digital effects ghost swooping through the air. When taken with his previous film, the 1999 remake of House On Haunted Hill, it’s clear that Director William Malone hasn’t realized that such effects illicit more chuckles or groans than fear. The few ghost stories that have succeeded in recent years have blurred the line between protoplasm and flesh (The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Devil’s Backbone), relying less on special effects than on the psychological uneasiness created when what appears to be normal isn’t.
Written by Josephine Coyle in a departure from her one previous screenplay credit and based on a story by Moshe Diamant who has produced a number of films, feardot.com does create some interesting characters and situations. Detective Riley (Dorff) is haunted by and taunted by a serial killer (Rea’s “The Doctor”) who craftily manages to maintain his website without getting caught. While investigating what appears to be a viral outbreak (Ebola-like hemorrhaging eyes and nose bleeds), Riley collaborates with Terry Houston (McElhone) from the Health Department, and soon the two realize that the three (soon to be four, then five) deaths are not viral.
Now here’s where it gets a little confusing (if not coincidental), because the one thing these people have in common is logging into what seems to be the Doctor’s website–and dying 48 hours later to the second. The Doctor is oblivious to just what people experience as they log on (does he never log on himself?) and there is the little matter of why hundreds of people logging on to see him in action aren’t filling the morgues within 48 hours. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film seems unclear about whether it wants to make comment on voyeurism or modern society or fear or [fill in the blank.] So despite some interesting ideas and characters floating around (pun intended), none of them come to life (pun…oh never mind).
With that said, I do admire the ways in which the story subverts certain aspects of Hollywood storytelling, such as with the ending, or the fact that the protagonist is not Dorff’s Detective as the previews imply but rather the Department of Health Agent played by McElhone (shades of Mimic). And for one of the first times I can remember in a film, here is a professional world peopled equally by men and women.
Too bad then that the film isn’t really worth the price of admission. For a film that should have us on the edge of our seats, feardot.com doesn’t deliver on the basic chills and scares a film experience like this requires. Some of this is the result of poor character development or perhaps acting that’s barely adequate. The people in this story world remain flat, and what few details we learn about them seem random or meaningless, such as one character’s hemophilia–yeah, I know that’s supposed to explain her fear of knives, but do you need hemophilia to be afraid of knives?
The film’s greatest flaw is pacing, within scenes, from scene to scene, from start to finish. There is little real suspense here and the film plods along. feardot.com is not an awful movie, just a mediocre one. Maybe a good rental for a rainy day.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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