Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Films of 2002: Feardotcom

Feardotcom (2002) looks and sounds like a remake of a Japanese horror film that never was. This 40 million dollar horror film was released to terrible reviews in the dog days of summer 2002, months before the premiere of The Ring (2002), actually, and has never really seen its dreadful reputation rehabilitated.

The William Malone film’s antecedents or inspirations have been rightly tagged by horror scholars as Ringu (1998) -- the source material for The Ring -- and Kairo (2001), which was remade in America in 2006 as Pulse.

Like all these films, and indeed, their remakes, Feardotcom expresses two horror film tropes that were popular circa 1998 – 2008.  

The first involves technology. In many of these films, technology -- VCRs, cell-phones, or even Internet web sites -- house evil supernatural entities. Thus technology itself is a portal or gateway to evil.

Secondly, the horror films of this period eschew the American horror paradigm of the 1980s: vice precedes slice and dice, and propose a replacement aesthetic. 

In American slasher films of the Reagan Era, those who transgress by having pre-marital sex, or smoking weed, die horribly. But in the J-Horror and J-Horror Remake Epoch (again, circa 1998 – 2008), the crime or transgression has been altered drastically. 

The crime now is simply watching. This seems a comment, contextually, about the boom of 24 hour cable news stations in the 1990s, the affordability of camcorders, and the advent of the Internet.  Web sites, CNN, and cheap video cameras enabled audiences to “see” things from across the world, but respond to them as entertainment, not in a more human dimension. These movies all want top punish those who are but passive observers of human suffering.

Feardotcom is very much of this school, although it handles both modern tropes very poorly. The movie’s style is hyper and overwrought, which makes it, at times, actively unpleasant to behold (an unintentional comment, perhaps on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC…). 

But even beyond that deficit, Feardotcom never overcomes several plot holes and questions of motivation.

“Do you like to watch?”

Even as a fiendish serial killer -- a surgeon named Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea) -- abducts his latest victim and plans to broadcast her torture and murder live on the Internet, metropolitan detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) investigates the strange death of Dr. Polidori (Udo Kier), author of the monograph, The Secret Soul of the Internet.  

Polidori’s corpse is found in a subway station, with bloody eyes.

Before long, more dead bodies are found, also having bled from the eyes and nose. At first, health inspector Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) suspects a hemorrhagic fever, like Ebola. But then a strange clue emerges.

All the victims died exactly 48 hours after viewing a specific, and gruesome web site: 

A police investigator, Denise (Amelia Curtis) visits the site, and suffers the same terrible fate. Angry, Mike visits the site too, and appears to go crazy.

Looking deeper into the mystery, Terry views and learns that it is a game site. The goal of the game is to find the site host, a beautiful woman, before 48 hours runs out. 

Terry investigates and finds that the woman on the site is actually long dead. Terry visits her mother and finds out that the girl, a hemophiliac, died at the hands of the serial killer, Pratt, but that her body was never recovered. 

Her name: Jeannine Richardson (Gesine Cukrowski)

Terry seeks out Jeannine's corpse, hoping to grant her spirit rest. 

Unfortunately, that spirit doesn’t want rest. She wants revenge.

“Play the game. Find me.”

Feardotcom makes it plain that those who watch, but do nothing to alter the events of the world are quite culpable for the atrocities of the world. 

When Terry texts with Jeannine, the host of the site -- a ghost or spirit, essentially -- she is told that she is “guilty.”  

Guilty “of what” Terry asks.

Watching,” the spirit replies.

This is the core ethos of the J-Horror film genre, transposed to New technologies, such as the Internet offer not a place of connection or community, but rather voyeurism and sadism. 

For example, Pratt has a web site too, and is planning to kill his latest victim “live” on that murder site. A second season episode of Millennium (1996-1999) called “The Mikado” handled the same concept better in 1998, but it is clear that this concept is something the culture was grappling with at the turn of the century.  

If you give an “evil” web site your hits, or “clicks” are you responsible for that evil site as it grows more popular?  As a voyeur, are you taking part in the atrocities, or just passively “watching?”

I appreciate how Feardotcom explores this notion, and ties the crime of "watching" to a sickness or virus in the human eye. 

All those who visit the web site develop Ebola-like symptoms, bleeding out of their tear ducts for watching the horror and not helping.  

At one point, Terry notes “We’re probably all infected,” meaning that with the ubiquity of 21st century mass media everybody is likely “contaminated" already.  The media is all-too easy to access.

The voyeuristic impulse is explored in the film through the site, which is a “live cam death site,” where one can find about “death…before it’s your turn.” thus promises its users a peek at how they will die, which it delivers. One character, Denise, dies surrounded by bugs, and at one point, the camera captures an insect literally crawling out of a desktop computer. That visual implies, simply and effectively, that the Internet is a place of pestilence and death.

I credit Feardotcom, too, with a sincere attempt to link the beginnings of the horror genre with the 21st century cyber-age. The name Polidori comes from Shelley, obviously, and the entire washed-out color palette of the film suggests German Expressionism to a high degree.

And yet, there is so much visual noise here -- lightning flashes, quick cuts, superimposition, distortion lenses, and cockeyed angles -- that the film grows increasingly unpleasant and jarring to watch. There’s too much of this noise here, and it detracts from the movie’s narrative and message.

Additionally, it seems that the screenplay could have been developed or honed a bit more to reduce implausibility.

For example, the dead girl/spirit, Jeannine -- who seeks revenge for her own murder -- was a hemophiliac. 

Female hemophiliacs are extremely rare, for one thing (uh...menstruation would be a factor right?). But more importantly, no responsible mother of a hemophiliac would permit her adolescent daughter to play in a rusty, broken down steel mill, as Jeannine's mother does. 

That is the location where the Jeannine is abducted by the serial killer, but it doesn’t really make sense that Jeanine would be allowed to go there. Why would the parent of a hemophiliac send a kid out at all, let alone to a pace with rusty metal and jagged corners?

Secondly, the movie goes to some lengths to establish that the web site works in a specific manner. You log into the web-site, you watch, and you have 48 hours to find the body of the dead girl, or you die. That's the pattern.  That's the formula. There should be no deviation.

At the end of the film, the web-site is brought to the evil surgeon, and he watches it, thus becoming exposed. 

But it doesn’t take 48 hours to kill him. Instead, the ghost leaps out of the Internet and kills him then and there.  If this was Jeanine's intent all along, she should have just e-mailed herself as a virus to Pratt, and when he opened that virus up on his computer, she could kill him.  

Perhaps I should be more basic in my criticism. 

How does a spirit create a web site in the first place?

Character motivations in the film are not very sensible, either. It is established, early on, that if you log into the web site and play the game, you will die in exactly 2 days.  So when Denise dies, what does Mike do? 

He immediately logs on, thus marking himself for death.  

And then when Terry learns what Mike has done, what does she do?  

She immediately logs on too, starting the cycle for herself.  

We don’t see the characters hesitate or weigh the options, they just leap into decisive, and indeed, suicidal action.

The performances in are poorly calibrated too. Stephen Rea hams it up as the serial killer Pratt, and the great Natascha McElhone is oddly light and flirty with Mike Reilly right off the bat. This is just one more quirk that makes the film difficult to praise.  Feardotcom takes a good cast and misuses them, attempts a German Expressionist style, and makes your eyes bleed, and is nonsensical in its story of how “watching” makes one culpable.

The great value in is, without a doubt, historical. Here’s the film that beat The Ring to theaters, and tried to tell, essentially, the same story: of a female spirit bent not on resting in peace, but executing revenge from beyond the grave.

But in terms of specific, is not particularly scary, in part because of the lousy, headache inducing editing, and in part because the story and characters never hold our attention, despite the film’s use of a new, 21st century paradigm in horror storytelling.

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