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What a Tangled Web

Feardotcom's thrills are cheap and confusing, but they look good

If you're looking for a horror film to revitalize the genre, keep looking. If you're looking for a horror movie with believable characters…yes, you're gonna have to keep looking. But if sudden loud noises, relentless strobe lights, digital hallucinations and mutilated corpses make you jump, and you feel that nothing more is required for a good time at the movies, welcome to Feardotcom.

It's a tad late to be jumping on the dot-com bandwagon (need proof? see the now-defunct TV show Freakylinks, or the recent Halloween: Resurrection), and it's way past redundant to be ripping off The X-Files and Seven. In one step of originality, however, this film was shot in Luxembourg (Prague must have been overbooked). Not that the Luxembourg tourist board is likely to be too pleased with the images of their country as all dark interiors and run-down industrial wasteland, but hey, that's why the movie pretends it's New York.

When veteran horror star Udo Kier is offed in a prologue sequence, having run onto the subway tracks while chasing a creepy little girl and her bouncing ball, Agent Mulder, er, police detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff, who's never met a script he didn't like) and Scully…damn, I mean Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone, blatantly channeling Gillian Anderson) notice that his corpse, and a couple of others that show up almost simultaneously, have bled through the eyes and mouth to form groovy ersatz Crow masks on their dying faces. It isn't a virus, thank goodness, because Reilly is germ-phobic. And if you think establishing his greatest fear early on is going to pay off later…you'd actually be wrong, because the issue is left hanging.

Stephen Dorff stars as Fox Mulder, er, police detective Mike Reilly in a race against time and a creepy Web site.
Warner Bros
Stephen Dorff stars as Fox Mulder, er, police detective Mike Reilly in a race against time and a creepy Web site.

The deaths are somehow related to a Web site all the victims logged onto, the redundantly named Feardotcom.com (the domain name fear.com is already owned by a site specializing in phobias, and fear.net or fear.uk just don't have the same impact). Forty-eight hours after visiting the site, you die, thus making it more lethal than the deadly videotape in the recently remade Japanese cult fave The Ring, which took seven days to kill you. But that's not all: On a seemingly unrelated topic, there's a serial killer out there called the Doctor (a miscast Stephen Rea, who should never, ever be asked to affect an American accent again) who likes to butcher women live on the Web.

Now here's the one part that confuses some people: The Doctor's site is not Feardotcom; he changes sites for each killing so that he can't be tracked -- Feardotcom was simply the first one. Don't feel too bad if you get confused; director William Malone isn't all that interested in storytelling. In one egregiously bad jumpcut, for instance, we go from Reilly and Huston's first friendly embrace to Reilly fully clothed sitting on the side of her bed. What just happened? Did they have sex, or did he merely go over to her place to stand guard? Does it matter? That'd be a no. Malone's too busy having fun with the industrial rock video images to worry about such trifles. Besides, there are plenty of anonymous naked women to get your testosterone fix on.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Feardotcom looks really good, at least if you're a fan of Clive Barkeresque torture devices, ghostly images, "scare people to death" CG hallucinations that play like R-rated versions of similar sequences in Young Sherlock Holmes, and anything that's ever been used in a video featuring Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson or Ministry. (Feardotcom is at once as atmospheric and dumb as Tarsem Singh's The Cell.) Surprisingly, director Malone isn't a rock video alumnus, though he probably has a better future in that field than anything else. Given what a substantial improvement this movie is over the dismal, irredeemable House on Haunted Hill remake he helmed, though, at least he's getting better. If his following film improves as much again over this one, it could be the next big thing.

In the meantime, we'll have to make do with movies that come by their scares not by making you care about the characters in jeopardy, but by baser (and bass-er, as in Dolby) means. Longtime horror aficionados, meanwhile, will appreciate seeing Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) cast against type as a relatively normal person. Quick cuts, sudden bumps, gruesome visions and enough white flashes to induce seizures even in nonepileptics may not mask the stupidity of some of the story, but they'll keep your mind off the rest of your life for about an hour and a half, and possibly even leave you with a slightly quickened pulse.

 
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