Director: William Malone. Cast: Natascha McElhone, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Rea, Udo Kier, Amelia Curtis, Jeffrey Combs, Michael Sarrazin, Nigel Terry, Jana Güttgemanns. Screenplay: Josephine Coyle (from a story by Moshe Diamant).

Why isn't this movie titled Fear.com? Potentially that title was already taken, but a quick zap to the real www.fear.com unveils a weird, modest, text-only website that it's hard to imagine is under fierce copyright protection. (Do have a look: this poll site has tracked all kinds of responses to "America's #1 fears," giving percentage statistics for how many of us are terrified by a wide range of insipidities, from "that I will go back to my old boyfriend" to "that I will run out of bandwidth.")

Whatever the reason, the hilarious result of FearDotCom's choice of title is that its characters, sleuths and victims alike, keep logging onto a killer website called www.feardotcom.com, which so far has an enormous fighting chance of being 2002's funniest unintentional joke and the very pinnacle of uncareful cinematic redundancy. Then again, FearDotCom itself is a pinnacle of uncareful cinematic redundancy, and not just because DreamWorks' upcoming The Ring weds a nearly identical premise to a higher budget and better marketing. FearDotCom, despite its manifestly B-grade trappings, could easily have tapped into some rich and exploitable paranoias about modernity and electronics. But instead, minus any wit, focus, or visual sense, this movie about a website that kills its viewers very nearly has that precise effect on its own audience.

This isn't the kind of movie that is sunk by poor acting, confused thematics, or inept technical execution, though symptoms of all three afflictions run rampant over this movie. Slumming thesps like Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone choke on such indigestible dialogue as, "Is there any reason why he would have died clutching your book as though it were the Holy Grail?" The whole movie is so dimly lit that simply turning on the computers to access the nasty website seems like a feat of electric good luck. The mad-hatter curator of feardotcom.com, played by Stephen Rea like a doddering survivor of a clown-car crash, keeps kidnapping buxom women and worrying their stripped breasts with straight razors and hypodermics, a compulsion in which the film takes putrid relishment.

And still, none of these represent the movie's biggest bugaboo, which is that no one has decided what feardotcom.com is, literally. The Rea character, always prodding the flesh of his nubile victims, natters on about voyeurism and the furtive contemporary appetite for watching the suffering of strangers. His ersatz sermons on the subject are typically delivered to his cameras, as though part of the "entertainment" itself, and we see an armada of TV cameras filming the abuse from every possible angle for the benefit of debauched subscribers everywhere. But on the other side, as Dorff and McElhone try to solve the feardotcom.com murders, the website they are downloading is a graphics-intensive, almost fully animated confabulation in which a Nordic woman asks, "Do you like to watch?", and panoplies of scalpel images and human cries prance around the screen until a giant white ball—the snappily streamlined container of the user's very worst fear—beams out of the computer terminal and right into your kisser. In other words, though Rea never seems to leave the side of his weeping hostages, some third arm beyond our field of vision is apparently reconfiguring feardotcom.com from a stripped-down, sadistic web approximation of reality-TV into a Java-enhanced, multimedia installation, executed with the gleeful assistance of the dark powers of Hell, and charmingly flexible with the principal laws of Newtonian physics.

Since the website the cops (plus, uh, the Department of Human Services?) are investigating has nothing to do with the website actually being programmed—and since the plagues of feardotcom.com's victims are a third thing entirely, a hallucinogenic paranoia that's the last word in Albino Chic—the suspense aspect of the movie is totally defunct. The investigators get "closer" to feardotcom.com, and it still doesn't look like feardotcom.com, meaning that the whole movie looks more and more like an arbitrary and joyless stringing-together of cruel set-pieces and crueler production values. Any giggles at the film's initial ineptitude quickly become sighs at the film's incoherency at moans at its extraordinary dullness. In this case, a viewer's apathy to images of suffering and degradation are not a pointed comment on contemporary desensitization to violence—it's just the proper response to a really crappy movie. Grade: D–

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