Feardotcom (UK/Germany/Luxembourg/USA, 2002)

May 14, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Feardotcom Poster

Feardotcom is a “ghost in the machine” movie, I guess. I can’t say for certain because the story is so confused and contradictory that it’s impossible to make sense of what’s going on. It hurts to search for logic in the wreckage of a screenplay that feels like it was cut into tiny pieces and glued back together in some random order. And, although the movie is atmospheric (numerous shots of dark, rainy streets and deserted, gloomy subway stations), it’s never especially creepy or scary. It feels like a made-for-Cinemax product that somehow maneuvered its way into getting a theatrical distribution deal.

The film features B-listers Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone as Detective Mike Reilly and Terry Houston, a cop and health researcher investigating a series of mysterious murders in New York City (actually a town in Luxembourg). Although the victims seemingly have nothing in common, their corpses have some similarities: bleeding from the eyes with a look of abject terror on their faces. Eventually, Mike and Terry discover the commonality among the victims. All visited one website, “feardotcom.com” (the owner of the more straightforward “fear.com” having been unwilling to sell the rights to the filmmakers at any price), within 48 hours before their deaths. So, of course, what do Mike and Terry do? In the name of good investigation, they type “www.feardotcom.com” in their web browser and are soon assailed by hallucinations. They learn that the website may be the concoction of the ghost of a victim of serial killer Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), who tortured and killed her in front of a live audience. Strangely, however, it seems that Alistair is controlling the website which, like pretty much everything else in Feardotcom, revels in the nonsensical.

The movie, written by Josephine Coyle (from a treatment by Moshe Diamant that was originally intended to be an erotic horror film for Red Shoe Diaries’ Zalman King) and directed by William Malone (who also helmed the dreadful House on Haunted Hill remake, which has many of the same problems as this production), originated in the early 2000s when the Internet was still new and somewhat mysterious to many. Feardotcom attempts to exploit the uncertainty and lack of understanding surrounding this technological innovation – something that was hokey and unconvincing at the time and comes across as downright ridiculous years later.

Although the filmmakers were turned down by every A-list performer approached (none of whom would likely have been affordable), they were able to cobble together a small list of somewhat recognizable names: Steven Dorff, Natascha McElhone, Stephen Rea, and Udo Kier (in a cameo). Rea was by far the most accomplished of the stars but he’s given so little to do that he probably filmed his part in a few days. Dorff does his best to seem engaged and interested; he’s the best of a bad bunch of actors. McElhone, who has done some memorable work over the years (especially in the Showtime TV show Californication), is awful. Whether it’s a case of miscasting (as postulated in the aftermath by Malone) or disinterest, she’s bad in a way that’s unfathomable. I’ve seen better performances in high school plays.

In his contemporaneous review, Roger Ebert offered an interesting take on Feardotcom. Although freely acknowledging the film’s narrative idiocy, he posited that Malone’s visual excesses merited praise. Perhaps that was true in 2002. Although I will concede that there are some visually arresting moments, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the hallucinations as Ebert was, seeing them more as directorial masturbation than anything else. And, in order for them to work in service of a movie (rather than, say, a show reel), the underlying story has to be more than a vat of curdled ideas and indecipherable concepts. Ebert, pulled into generosity by his appreciation of Feardotcom’s imagery, gave the movie two stars. I can’t be nearly as munificent; my single star almost seems too kind.

Feardotcom (UK/Germany/Luxembourg/USA, 2002)

Director: William Malone
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone, Stephen Rea, Jeffrey Combs
Home Release Date: 2024-05-14
Screenplay: Josephine Coyle, based on a story by Moshe Diamant
Cinematography: Christian Sebaldt
Music: Nicholas Pike
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-05-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1