Rated R - Running Time: 1:38 - Released 8/30/02

An artistic amalgamation of creepy images strung together without much of a plot, William Malone's Fear Dot Com is more a horror effects showcase than a film per se. Its screenplay, by Josephine Coyle, based on a story by Moshe Diamant, involves a pair of murder investigators trying to get to the bottom of a string of brutal killings perpetrated on visitors to a particular Internet website, but it's so caught up in its own art it rarely succeeds at being truly scary. Creepy images are fine, but they have to mean something. On the other hand, the acting by Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone is not terrible, and Malone's talent at creating dimly lit spookiness certainly gives the film a glossy look and feel.

New York City detective Mike Reilly (Dorff) and virus expert Terry Houston (McElhone) meet when they are both assigned to a strange case. A man has killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train after seeing a bizarre hallucination of a little girl in white, bouncing a white ball. When the body is examined, blood is found emanating from his eyes and nose, and an expression of horror is on his face. Soon other victims are found with the same symptoms, like a German youth, his girlfriend, and Terry's neighbor (Nigel Terry). They have all died in a variety of ways (each of his own worst phobia), but they all have bloody eyes and noses, and their computers are all damaged. When Mike and Terry hire a computer whiz (Amelia Shankley) to check the victims' hard drives, she soon starts seeing things too, and eventually commits suicide. Then they figure it out: all the victims had visited a site called "Fear Dot Com" (actually it's feardotcom.com), which shows grisly footage of a psycho called "The Doctor" (Stephen Rea, doing a bad Jack Nicholson) torturing half-nude women to death with surgical instruments. What's more, the victims all perished exactly 48 hours after logging on. The trouble is, Mike and Terry can't resist checking the site out, too, so their hours may be numbered. Especially when they start bleeding from their noses and seeing the little white girl with the ball.

I suppose this is a serviceable horror thriller if you like long montages of creepy, dreamlike imagery and loud music. Over and over we see the girl, the ball, a doorway, various freaky faces, and young women getting wasted in their underwear (and I don't mean in the good way). But although these images supposedly all add up toward the end of the film, I couldn't help feeling that it was a case of a director being in love with his own arty style. Every scene is critically underlit, even when people are just hanging out at their homes—no one seems to have heard of a light switch. Of course, we have plenty of the horror story staples, like people going into dark rooms (not finding a light switch), doing things they know have resulted in others' deaths, and lots of not-very-convincing dead bodies lying around in grimy, decaying, industrial-looking sets. I always feel that when it comes to horror movies, less is more—the subtler the imagery, the better. But I guess in this modern age of slick computer grahics, the temptation to overindulge is just too great. The only trouble is, I've seen porn sites with more of a story. ***

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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