Dull Dot Net Backslash Yawn

A glum Stephen Dorf hunts for horror in the supremely unimaginative Fear Dot Com

Niels Strandskov

Fear Dot Com raises the question: When will America’s love affair with serial killer pictures finally end? The genre’s pretty full at this point. Hollywood has worked through every obvious gimmick and explored every facile motivation for committing lurid acts of violence against women. This time, it is an evil Website that offers surfers a chance to interactively torture a young woman to death. The film offers little in the way of explanation as to why we should find this idea compelling, except that we were due for another serial killer flick, and nobody had tried the Website angle yet. Maddeningly, it seems that the need churn out an unpleasant (although popular) series of repellant images has accelerated the pace at which new serial killer films are released.

Fear Dot Com makes a desperate attempt to establish a sense of menace that is integral to the genre of the thriller. Glum lighting and asymmetrical camera angles immediately transport the viewer to a perpetually dismal and drizzly metropolis. Slightly futuristic computer hardware is contrasted with filthy interiors that bespeak a dissipated society.When a scene is set in an apartment, one can almost feel the crunch of unidentifiable garbage underfoot.When it is an institution, the odor of ancient cigarettes and mimeograph fluid seeps from the screen. All of the production design is for naught, however, as none of the film’s other elements manage to pull their weight.

Stephen Dorff, slight and grizzled, is paired with the prim, sharp-featured Natascha McElhone as mismatched sleuths trying to bring crazed serial killing doctor Stephen Rea (looking even doughier than usual) to justice. Dorff and McElhone are the modern Mutt-and-Jeff team: a one-off Mulder and Scully. Dorff ’s driven police detective roils, blusters and bumbles through the film, angrily stalking the killer he is supposed to have ceded to the FBI. It is somewhat puzzling, given the film’s propensity for stock situations, that a gruff-but-caring supervisor never screams “You’re off the case!” at him.Apparently the audience is supposed to fill this in mentally. McElhone as a Department of Health investigator, gamely attempts to follow Dorff around and lend a helping hand when he threatens to veer off into complete paranoia. Neither actor manages to lend any credence to the obligatory whirlwind romance. Every time something bad happens, Dorff flies into an irrational, violent rant. There’s nothing lovable there.

One by one, the characters fall prey to the lure of the naughty Website. Despite each of the victims entreating the next not to view it, the lure of Internetbased live snuff films proves too strong for each in turn. After Dorff succumbs, McElhone races around alone, at night, without telling anyone what she’s doing, to pull dead bodies out of flooded power plants. No explanation is ever offered, either for her reckless rush through the dark, rainy streets or her preternatural detecting powers.

Every time the absurdity of the pursuit threatens to completely derail Fear Dot Com, up pops Stephen Rea for some unpleasant torture scenes, either directly or through the medium of the film’s eponymous Website. These scenes are so mannered and gratuitous that while they make the film’s characters go mad with fear, they ought to simply make the audience grit their teeth with impatience.

This is propaganda for misogyny. Rea’s character has no motivation for his crimes. There’s no message to impart. The only possible saving grace might be an implied criticism of the viewer for participating it torture and murder. But the cunning filmmakers let us off the hook. It turns out that it is not the evil itself that is corrupting, but rather an unquiet ghost roaming the net trying to find a person to take revenge on the killer. Brr. Spooky.

Evil belongs in film. It could even be argued that film needs evil. Saccharine moralizing is nearly as annoying as Fear Dot Com’s uninspired deviance. But portraying evil requires skill to make it interesting.At their best, films can depict evil in a way that is both complex and meaningful, such as Peter Lorre’s whimpering performance as a child killer in Fritz Lang’s seminal M, one of the first,and greatest,films in this genre.Fear Dot Com wastes its chance to horrify us, to truly probe the depths of pain and wickedness. This pastiche of scenes and themes from other, better films only speaks to the venality of the filmmakers.

Fear Dot Com. Rated R. Directed by William Malone. Starring Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone and Stephen Rea. Playing now at theaters everywhere.