THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"fear dot com"

One of the most enduring of all urban legends is the one about the existence of "snuff films" - movies purporting to show an actual murder on camera. Although there has never been one single verified account of a snuff film, the legend goes on. The new movie fear dot com melds this legend with modern technology by imagining a snuff website where subscribers can pay money to watch a woman being tortured and murdered live. I will admit a certain amount of apprehension about the premise. Years of moviegoing have given me a strong stomach, but torture is one thing that still unnerves me. If fear dot com had been a better movie, it might have been more frightening than it is. And I really think this had the potential to be a better movie. As it stands, the film is just another gimmicky horror flick that is queasy where it should have been scary.

The story begins on a deserted New York City subway. A man sees a little girl bouncing her ball on the platform. It falls onto the tracks and she climbs down to get it, unaware that a train is rapidly approaching her. The man jumps down to save her and is hit by the train. When he is found, New York City detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) notices an unusual expression on the man's face. It is one of fear, but not fear of the approaching train. His look suggests that he saw something truly horrific right before he died. Several more people are also found dead not long after, all of them having the same facial expression, plus an inexplicable bleeding from the eyes. Believing there is some kind of virus going around, Reilly enlists the help of Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone). They quickly realize the problem is not viral. An investigation of the dead people's computers leads to a common bond: they have all logged onto a website called "fear-dot-com."

Reilly comes to the conclusion that this website is being run by Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), a serial killer he has been chasing down for years. Pratt, who calls himself "The Doctor," was alleged to have flunked medical school, but that's all the explanation we get for his murderous ways. His modus operandi is to get a webcam and hook up a live feed in which he tortures innocent women before killing them in front of a viewing audience. Pratt has somehow utilized a strange power the internet has; guests at his website are zapped with "negative energy" created from the evil broadcast over it. Exactly 48 hours after logging on, they die from their worst fear.

Stephen Dorff tracks down a killer on the internet in fear dot com
Once they have this figured out, Huston makes Reilly promise he won't log on. Of course, he does. When he nearly dies from fright, he makes her promise that she won't log on. Of course (again), she does. Why do characters in horror movies always have the collective IQ of a toilet brush? I'm not sure I can really explain much more about fear dot com. Writing what I have so far has taken me a lot longer than I ever thought it would. Essentially, a ghostly woman appears on the website taunting Reilly and Huston. When they click the "yes" button, a series of violent hallucinations flash before their eyes.

I find myself at somewhat of a loss here. Nothing in this film makes sense at all. As I indicated earlier, there is absolutely no explanation whatsoever for Pratt's murderous ways. Even worse is that we never understand why he chooses this particular method of killing people. I mean, hooking up your own website is tough; why choose that as your forum for murder? Pratt has a couple of speeches in which he mutters something about providing viewers with "intimacy" but they don't amount to much. Was the film trying to comment on our voyeuristic society? Perhaps. That certainly is not an original subject (The Truman Show covered it much better a few years ago) although it hasn't really been done in this context. So why not really go for it instead of just beating around the bush? It's hard to be afraid of the psycho killer when we don't understand him.

Perhaps the answer lies in the plot, which left me feeling like entire scenes had been ripped out. The characters in this movie always seem to know things they would have no way of knowing. The movie tries to concoct a backstory about Pratt's first victim, and the way the internet has the ability to channel evil, and the ghostly little girl who pops up in everyone's nightmares. Reilly and Huston somehow make great leaps in their investigation. They always seem to figure things out, even though we in the audience aren't able to. I kept wondering how they could put the pieces together when so many of them appear to be missing.

It's a shame that fear dot com is so jumbled because director William Malone gives the film an incredible visual style. Malone (who also directed the much better update of House on Haunted Hill) uses his talents to create atmosphere where the script provides none. This is particularly evident in the grand finale, shot in grainy sepia tones reminiscent of old horror movies. Although the look is ancient, the special effects are quite modern and creepy. The overall effect is chilling. Too bad the story couldn't support the visuals, because with some plot development this could have been a modern horror classic.

Read that could've been. If you want to know what it is in actuality, log on to my imaginary website:

( 1/2 out of four)

fear dot com is rated R for violence including grisly images of torture, nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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