Retrospective

20 years ago, Hollywood’s first internet thriller launched a terrifying new genre

What if something bad happened... online?

Perhaps the first sign the movie wasn’t going to be a credible cyber-horror revolved around its central snuff-based website. The real-life owners of now-defunct Fear.com reportedly refused to give up their domain name no matter how much money producers threw their way, meaning the film’s depraved souls could only watch a crazed doctor slowly torture young women in an industrial lair by logging onto feardotcom.com.

Released on August 30, 2022, the notorious flop wasn’t the first scare-fest to explore the darker side of the web. Just a year earlier, Pulse helped extend the J-horror scene's conquest of America with the story of malevolent spirits infiltrating the web. Hollywood had previously offered several cautionary tales, ranging from the virtual reality lunacy of The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace to the slightly more grounded paranoia of The Net. As a progenitor of the subgenre that became known as torture porn, however, FeardotCom was a different beast.

Possibly burned by the accusations of toothlessness leveled at his House on Haunted Hill remake, director William Malone intended to make the entire film resemble a nightmare, saying, “I wanted it to be like one of those things when you wake up in the middle of the night and you think you’re awake but you’re actually still dreaming.” Maybe that’s why FeardotCom seems allergic to any form of illumination — and why it’s dominated by the kind of flashing imagery you’d expect from a Marilyn Manson video. Sadly, as with most bad dreams, the film defies any sense of logic.

FeardotCom begins promisingly enough. A distressed man (Udo Kier) starts seeing visions of a creepy young girl in a subway before he’s fatally struck by a train. Like the victims in The Ring, his final facial expression is terrifyingly wide-eyed and open-jawed. But as brooding detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) and nondescript Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) will discover, it’s a voyeuristic website rather than a cursed videotape that’s responsible.

Malone initially does an effective job of ramping up the tension as several other deviants learn that curiosity really can kill the cat. Eerie camcorder footage shows a German couple descending into eye-bleeding madness. There’s an effective nod to Stephen King’s Christine when Terry’s boss is driven to his death by a car with a mind of its own.

The creepiest thing about the film. Warner Bros.

The explanation for these gruesome killings, however, essentially relegates FeardotCom’s unique selling point to an afterthought. Each victim had previously visited a website run by Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), a failed doctor who spends his days slicing and dicing women in the name of entertainment. As Don’t F*** with Cats proved, the concept of a killer broadcasting their depravity online remains a chilling one. Yet Pratt’s motives are sidelined by some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo involving a vengeful ghost. Rea’s screen time barely adds up to five minutes.

It turns out the subway child was a hemophiliac mutilated by Pratt over a 48-hour period for all of the net’s most perverted souls to see. Anyone who types in the ridiculous URL will now be killed by their worst fear just two days later, whether they’re an anonymous sadist or, as in the case of poor cockroach-phobic forensic specialist Denise Stone (Amelia Curtis), simply researching the site in the line of duty.

Natascha McElhone and Stephen Dorff looking horrified by something, possibly the film’s script.Warner Bros.

FeardotCom, therefore, can’t quite work out whether it wants to be an outlandish supernatural fable, a gloomy tech-noir, or a cynical gorefest. It ultimately fails at being any of them. The spirit’s motives are muddled, the web aspect is underused, and much of the gruesome violence is left to the imagination. You get the feeling the impressive cast was left wondering exactly what they signed up for too.

Dorff, who’s essentially admitted disappointment in the film, practically sleepwalks his way through the investigation. Described as miscast by Malone, McElhone also reacts to the terror swamping New York with as much urgency as a dial-up modem. The chemistry between Mike and Terry is so non-existent you can easily reach the end of the 101-minute slog without realizing they were supposed to be love interests.

Then there’s Academy Award nominee Rea, who looks like he’d rather be getting audited than spouting pretentious dialog like “Reducing relationships to anonymous electronic impulses is a perversion.” More interested in talking than showing, his Hannibal Lecter-lite character commits the ultimate cardinal sin when it comes to boogeymen: He’s dull as ditchwater.

Stephen Rea in beetroot-shaded maniacal mode. Warner Bros.

FeardotCom’s critical mauling – it became only the seventh film to receive CinemaScore’s dreaded F rating – and failure to recoup even half of its $40 million budget appeared to deter Tinseltown from similar fare. You had to wait until 2005’s table-turning revenge flick Hard Candy for another lesson on the dangers of the internet.

Since then, we’ve had the slightly hypocritical torture porn condemnation Untraceable, dated-on-arrival Chatroom, and a whole cottage industry of horrors played out entirely on social media screens to varying degrees of success. This ugly, contradictory mess, however, remains the subgenre’s biggest waste of bandwidth.

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