FeardotCom was directed by William Malone (Scared to Death, The Others), written by Josephine Coyle (Ballad of the Nightingale, Notes) and Holly Payberg-Torroija (Feathers and Toast, The Guardians) and stars Stephen Dorff (Old Henry, Paradise City), Natascha McElhone (Big Nothing, Designated Survivor), Stephen Rea (Princess Caraboo, Horrible Histories), Jeffrey Combs (Holiday Hell, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and Udo Kier (Iron Sky: The Coming Race, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich). It follows a detective and a Department of Health scientist as they solve the rise of a mysterious internet illness.
The Plot: It’s hard to come up with a plot introduction for a film whose own plot doesn’t make sense. Coyle and Payberg-Torroija try to take the basic idea of Se7en and its saga of murders but try to cram in so many elements that almost nothing holds up to scrutiny.
Seven (real clever, FeardotCom) people – including internet scholar Polidori (Kier) – have recently been found dead by detectives Reilly (Dorff) and Styles (Combs). Once an eighth comes into the police station with the same bleeding eyes as the others, Reilly gets DoH researcher Terry (McElhone) on the case. It’s not a bad setup, but FeardotCom begins to include nonsensical reasoning in the investigation and an equally dumb secondary plot.
Linking the deaths is a visit to a site called feardotcom.com [sic] which apparently kills viewers in an arbitrary 48 hours via Ebola-like means somehow. This is justified by a possessor of sorts wanting viewers to find a certain body, but in that case, why kill them in two days? Meanwhile, Reilly and Terry decide to take their chances and view the site, which hosts videos of serial killer Alistair (Rea, sporting an indeterminate and breathy American accent) torturing women, in hopes of catching the killer and stopping the virus. Taking the site down is a stretch goal.
As if that weren’t enough, copious amounts of time are spent on integrating these two plots only for Malone to ultimately fail to do so. Characters go insane from looking at Feardotcom.com, you’ll go insane if you try to comprehend FeardotCom.
The Characters: Because the writers failed to give any of the characters any personality, backstory, motivations, and a sense of urgency, the performers were left to try and craft their own ideas, but under Malone, that effort was for naught.
Reilly and Styles aren’t even assigned a rank by the script, making a starting point a distant hope. Reilly is a gruff guy who obsesses over the site’s serial killer who he doesn’t know exists until over a third of the way in and is a germaphobe. Dorff tries to make his determination the character’s defining feature, but the continuity of FeardotCom ruins the attempt. Styles is largely and strangely absent despite being Reilly’s partner, but during the scenes he is in, Combs tries to deliver lines with a sense of sass that again are quashed by the writing.
Terry has trouble with interaction, citing a minimal amount of time spent outside her house. Doing what isn’t explained. She has a habit of oversharing other things though, like random factoids about microorganisms, which gets a reaction out of her new acquaintance. Other than that, she owns a cat named Bennie.
Alistair borders on malevolent for the sake of it, but there’s some level of twisted motivation that kind of works. He claims that the internet is evil for offering the same things that reality does (commerce, politics, perversion, etc.) and that those who use it need to witness the darkest end of its depths. Buried deep under the videos and goofy monologuing there might be an interesting character, which is the highest praise any of the ones in FeardotCom will ever get.
The Horror: Labeling the movie as a mystery wouldn’t be inaccurate, as viewers will surely be asking questions like “how does that make sense?”, “is the movie over yet?” and “huh?”, but the horror aspects take precedence.
Punishment is the motivation behind Alistair’s videography and, to its credit, FeardotCom delivers some level of discomfort. The killer takes his time to finish a victim and acknowledges that they’re feeling immense pain but continues on with his torture in an effort to make a lesson out of the experience. Disturbingly, he ends this line by offering a way out but condemns the choice. These sequences capture the dark side of the web acceptably but aren’t special.
Hallucinations make up the other side of the horror in FeardotCom, and this side completely falls through. Those who view the site are redundantly presented with the visuals of death, but the creator of the site somehow knows all of their worst fears and presents them with it for those 48 hours. Isn’t knowing that they’re on borrowed time just a kick in the head at that point? Coyle and Payberg-Torroija didn’t come up with any unique phobias to showcase either. Everything is just the same old cockroaches and ominous children.
Sickness is the final pillar of the enterprise, and it’s the weakest yet. Even though Terry described the process as similar to Ebola, all that Malone ever shows is some obviously inorganic blood coming from the lower sections of a person’s eye followed by an almost immediate plunge into cartoonish insanity. Some process. At least there are some decent moments of squeamish slicing.
The Technics: Frankly, it’s a miracle Malone got another major production after showing little aptitude for helming features with his previous releases. Despite being handed $40 million to work with, FeardotCom is an awkward mess.
Supposedly set in New York but clearly filmed elsewhere, Luxembourg doesn’t make a good stand-in for the notorious city. Streets are too clean, the lights are too spherical, the architecture is too artsy and gothic, and the apartments are way, way too big. The colour palette is believable albeit overly grey and brown, but it just doesn’t convince on location or on sets managed by production designer Jerome Latour (The Palace, Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht).
Directorially the movie is weak since the helmer confuses closeups for emotion and pregnant pauses for drama. Malone got cinematographer Christian Sebaldt (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Pacific Blue) to capture the movie with an almost voyeuristic series of long, gliding shots that hang low to the ground, but this only serves to make the obviously-not-New-York setting all the more apparent while dragging the runtime on a frustrating film. As far as has been mentioned, the movie was only edited down in small snippets to avoid an NC-17, not completely overhauled; I suppose it should’ve been as it can’t make any less sense or be any more jumbled.
FeardotCom is chock full of ideas, almost all of which are underdeveloped, and even more, are just inane. It’s not without some creepy moments and the rare decent scene but it isn’t worth risking a virus to watch.
Feardotcom is available on DVD and Digital platforms from Warner Bros.