Udo Kier stumbles down a dark New York subway stairway, his face sweaty and deeply shadowed, his eyes popping in that Udo Kierian way. He looks paranoid, he stands trembling on the platform. Suddenly, he sees a little white girl in a white dress with white blond hair, playing on the tracks. A train approaches. His jaw drops. His eyes and nose are bleeding. And then, Udo Kier leaps in front of the train, splat, dead.
Odd and unreadable as it is, this first scene in feardotcom is, in fact, its most coherent. From here on, it’s all downhill, not to mention increasingly dark and rainy. Indeed, it appears that the makers — including director William Malone, previously responsible for the dreadful House on Haunted Hill — have seen Seven a few too many times. The cop team combines Somerset and Mills with aspects of Scully and Mulder, though without much intelligence or useful instinct. The first identifiable cop on the crime scene (all others being too darkly shadowed to make out) is scruffy detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff). He’s got a bit of near-inscrutable history with a serial killer called The Doctor, who taunted him with “love letters” until the Feds took over the case. It’s not clear how much time is involved, how long Mike was on the case or when the Feds came in or how The Doctor came to know his name or write him letters. All you need to know is that Mike is troubled. Check.
Within minutes, more cases come in, a couple of punkish “German kids,” also with bleeding eyes and noses. Someone calls in a health department researcher, Terry (Natascha McElhone, who needs to talk to her agent, seriously). She is Mike’s designated partner on this case, which you learn when she arrives at the kids’ apartment just in time to advise him not to touch the dead bodies, as they might be infected with something like Ebola. Apparently, this obvious precaution doesn’t occur to Mike. (Maybe he’s distracted.) As Terry and Mike ride around in his dark car, she explains that she works with germs and bugs because “someone has to — otherwise disease would spread out of control.” To Mike, this sounds like a reason.
Conveniently, the “German kids” have left a videotape of their descent into eye-bleeding: over a period of 48 hours, they twitch and fret, yell and tear at themselves. “The guy’s losing it!” Mike observes helpfully. Hmmm. Following some unspecific “tests,” Terry learns that a virus is not responsible for the deaths; further, she and Mike deduce that the victims have been looking at a website, “feardotcom.com” (we’ll just let the illogical redundancy of this title hang itself) exactly 48 hours before they die. Exactly.
When Mike sics a forensics programmer (Amelia Shankley) to check out the site, she throws herself out her apartment window, in her slip, landing on Mike’s car just as he and Terry pull up outside, in the rain of course. At this point, Terry asks Mike to promise not to go to the website. He doesn’t answer her. The rain falls. She falls asleep. He’s heads straight for the website. By now, in another movie, you’d be caring what might happen to Mike and Terry. Not here.
Instead, presumably seeking that schizzy nightmarish quality that surfing the net or rifling through your own dream files might produce, feardotcom doesn’t even try to show character relations or find logical transitions from one scene to another. (Dorff tells the press notes writer that he “studied the script,” but then “let his persona develop in front of the camera, in the moment, constantly evolving with each new interaction.”) Instead, it puts Terry to sleep — knocked out from exhaustion or a brain blast — and has her wake up in the next scene, with phone or alarm ringing. “Oh my god,” she invariably says, glancing at the time, gathering her wits, and rushing out of whatever room she happens to be in.
Though it’s amateurish and unconvincing, after its first couple of applications, this device begins to look inviting — as in, you’re wishing you could sleep through these scenes along with Terry. The film does its best to keep you awake by crosscutting to a whole other scene featuring the man who is more or less responsible for the mayhem, The Doctor himself, Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), whose whiny voice, Dr. Frankenstein-style lab coat, and penchant for cutlery underline his dire villainy, in case you had any doubts. His scenes begin as he lures a colossally stupid girl to come to his lair, on the promise of a part in a film — she dutifully spends the rest of this movie naked and strapped to an upright gurney, as Alistair slashes and harasses her, all the while making speeches about his determination to make death “intimate” and “repulsive” so that folks who “like to watch” it on his snuff site pay a price. Precisely what price is not clear.
feardotcom endeavors to make this violence difficult for you to watch (coinciding with The Doc’s “repulsive” idea), by incorporating the infamously scritchy Seven credits sequence into the film proper — the screen pulses and spasms, the soundtrack throbs and screams. Punishing viewers is hardly a new idea, even if feardotcom pretends to complicate the charge by having odious sicko Alistair mouth it.
The ostensible “twist” in the plot is that he’s not actually in charge of feardotcom.com, even though he appears repeatedly torturing this naked girl. The real purveyor of the “negative” energy (this according to an “internet expert” Mike and Terry consult (as he’s getting a blow job under his table in a bar, a bar that is, of course, dark) is one of Alistair’s early victims, a “model” (s/m porn performer? whatever) named Jeannie (Gesine Cukrowski). Really mad that she’s dead, apparently, she deploys a stereotypical “Euro” accent on her site, inviting visitors to “play wid” her” and then, to “hurt” her. If you click “no,” you don’t want to hurt her, that doesn’t matter because she calls you a liar and makes you do it anyway.
Jeannie’s vengeance plot is peculiar at best, but then, she’s had a bad childhood. When Mike is incapacitated following his visit to the site, Terry undertakes to solve the case, visiting Jeannie’s mother Joan McBride (Joan McBride), who cheerily recounts how she used to send her extremely hemophiliac daughter — who might have bled to death from a scratch — to play down at “the old steel mill,” some two miles away. You’d think Jeannie would be angry at mom for being so preposterously dim, but no, she’s taking it out on people who surf the internet. You’ve been warned.
The enraged ghost in the machine idea is surely familiar, as is the excavation of snuff as a concept: see Wes Craven’s 1989 Shocker or Tarsem Singh’s 2000 The Cell (where the machine is a human brain, sort of). Better still, see David Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome for a more or less definitive consideration of both topics (with a remarkable dose of Debby “I was made for that show” Harry, to boot). In feardotcom, the discovery of Jeannie’s role in the murders is neither startling nor horrifying. Rather, it’s mundane and comes way late in the proceedings. And if you’ve been paying attention to these, which you are most likely not, you will have figured much of this out long before Mike and Terry finally do, as they are gallingly slow on the uptake, the downtake, and every other kind of take.
All these themes come together as the major players converge, finally, in a ridiculous, deeply unscary display of loud noise, gloom-and-doomy shadows, and multiple bodily penetrations. There may even be a climax and a resolution, but by the time Terry is waking up yet again, she’s still in the dark. You too.