Twenty years ago this weekend, one of the most ambitious, ahead-of-its-time horror movies of the 21st century was released, containing traces of virtually every aesthetic and trope that would become increasingly popular for the genre in the years since.
Twenty years ago this weekend, one of the most dreary, incoherent, luridly misogynistic torture porn nonsense farragoes I’ve ever seen was released, making back less than half its (reported) budget at the box office, earning a rare “F” CinemaScore, severely derailing the careers of its three main cast members, and permanently destroying the reputation of its director.
Believe it or not, those two paragraphs describe the same film: FearDotCom. This movie sucks. I want to make that clear. Many of you reading this may not have heard of this movie before. Some of you reading this might not have even been born yet when it was released. So, in case this retrospective prompts a curiosity to “see what this is all about,” let me make it absolutely clear:
With that said… for those who have seen it… I do think it’s worth looking back on this unfathomably awful film to appreciate how oddly cutting-edge it was in many respects for the subsequent two decades of not only the horror genre, but crime thrillers and even popular depictions of the internet in general. The plot centers on a cursed website, hilariously titled feardotcom.com because the domain owner of the now-defunct fear.com had no interest in helping promote this pile of rubbish. Upon logging in, the site channels evil energies into whoever visits it, killing them with a horrified expression on their face 48 hours later. If you’re thinking, “hey, that sounds similar to critically praised box office smash hit cultural phenomenon The Ring,” by sheer (and unfortunate for director William Malone) coincidence, that much better horror movie, which cemented its place as another one of the most influential made within my lifetime, released only about a month-and-a-half later in theaters and blew FearDotCom out of the box office.
Anyway, after a series of logically dubious speculation and laughably implausible connections made by a police detective (played by Stephen Dorff) and a health inspector (played by Natascha McElhone), they conclude that this cursed website is run by… I, uh… I think both the ghost of a woman who was a victim of a sadistic killer and the sadistic killer? Or maybe he hosts it and she is maybe able to… ergh, it doesn’t make any sense, but what happens onscreen strongly suggests they operate the site together. Somehow. Anyway, this seemingly pointless flash-animation-filled webpage full of grisly images and creepy sounds – its functionality as a website is kinda left up to the imagination – all seem connected to a serial killer calling himself The Doctor (played by, God help me, Academy Award nominee Stephen Rea). Guess what his modus operandi is? Go on. Guess.
Why, yes, it turns out that this villain’s main signature is – surprise! surprise! – gruesomely torturing scantily-clad young women. Because that was the thing all hacky American horror filmmakers loved to depict back in the Aughts. Hey, ya gotta give the people what they want, right? And there are few things Americans love to watch more than violence against women, especially if it’s couched in a baroque, pretentiously moralistic way. Once that’s revealed, it becomes pretty apparent that what we’re watching isn’t scary so much as just deeply unpleasant and depressing misogynistic cruelty, rendered in lovingly graphic detail (which was very much cynically marketed as a “CaN yOu HaNDLe iT?” selling point at the time, letting everyone know the numerous edits it took for the theatrical cut to barely avoid an NC-17 rating).
But, while that is tedious, miserabilist bullshit, there is something undeniably visually creative about the design of the settings where this series of tedious miserabilist bullshit takes place. Malone wanted FearDotCom to look “basically like a nightmare,” and damn me, but I have to tip my hat to the guy in this regard. Because not only does the visual language of the film take on an abstract, broken-down, fever dream logic, but it leans into that stylization more heavily as the movie goes on, similar to a slow-motion version of those shifts from the “normal” to “nightmare” worlds of the Silent Hill games (the second and best entry of the series was released on PlayStation 2 only a year earlier). Rooms get progressively more dilapidated, outdoor scenes become more overcast, and the color scheme slowly desaturates, scene by scene, until the utterly incomprehensible climax is essentially monochromatic. Few movies outside of the most daring Italian “Portal To Hell” thrillers had even tried to look quite like this before.
It goes all in on the World Wide Web as the source of malevolence, too, which was not common at the time. Before Megan Is Missing, before We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, before Untraceable, there was FearDotCom, and there was a definite shift in how those technology anxieties have been depicted since. Just compare Brain Scan to Unfriended to see there was a dramatic change in how the “this cyberspace stuff is scary!” subgenre presented itself. Even the #1 reason I hate this movie stuck around. Of course, serial killer thrillers had been a thing long before FearDotCom and women being lavishly murdered even longer than that, but they became more intertwined as “necessary” for each other and a lot more sadistic in the years since. How many films have been made in the last twenty years where “we have to apprehend the torturer/murderer before he kills his next victim!” is the driving conflict that always ends with the heroes finding and stopping him literally just seconds before the torturer/murderer kills his last victim? Right off the top of my head, I just described at least 80% of Criminal Minds episodes alone. Not nearly as influential as The Ring was on the J-horror boom of that era, but still… not nothing, either.
So why is this formally daring, influential film so bad in every other way? Why did Malone put so much creative effort into the visuals and the atmosphere while stumbling through such a dreary hash of what should have been a straightforward ghost story? It could be because it was a victim of its own ambition. I have this pet theory (that I am sure several exceptions exist in opposition to) that most truly pioneering first-of-its-kind films are a chore to sit through as films themselves, and the only reasons to seek them out these days are purely academic. Genuine masterpieces that are credited as “the first” of anything seldom actually are. The first-ever violent gore movie ever produced in the United States, for example, was a hilariously goofy low-budget joke of a film called Blood Feast. By contrast, the near-perfect Halloween developed a reputation for being some progenitor of the slasher genre despite inventing almost no new narrative tropes or camera tricks or editing techniques that weren’t already experimented with in older, crappier movies too busy discovering new things to attach them to something watchable.
Critics and film writers, understandably, prefer to highlight and discuss the cultural import of the absolute best examples of the medium. It’s much more enjoyable to wax poetic about the cultural impact of movies we love and want to rewatch and share with our friends. I’m no different! But we should try to remember bad art from time to time, too. We should acknowledge when dreck does something novel or exerts an unexpected influence on future films or the broader cultural zeitgeist. Quite a few godawful movies have as much to teach us about the artform as the timeless classics, and FearDotCom is one of them.
It’s not worth seeing, but it’s arguably worth remembering.