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(2002) (Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone) (R)

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Horror: A detective joins a health worker in trying to figure out why various people are dying after logging on to the same Internet site.
Mike Reilly (STEPHEN DORFF) is a NYC detective who's called to the scene of a mysterious death in the subway system. The victim, Polidori (UDO KIER), has blood from his eyes and other orifices and by the frozen look on his face, appears to have been scared to death.

Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (NATASCHA McELHONE) is intrigued by the find as well, particularly when several more victims show up with identical bloodiness. When a contagious virus is ruled out, the two team up to discover what might be killing these people. After some digging for clues, they end up sending the victims' computer hard drives to forensic specialist Denise Stone (AMELIA CURTIS).

She ends up discovering that they visited a website called Feardotcom, but upon looking at the site herself, she's subjected to various sights and sounds of torture that eventually drive her crazy, resulting in her death. Terry eventually figures out that people who visit that website end up dying within 48 hours, apparently from what they feared the most in their lives. Yet, despite such knowledge, both she and Mike end up visiting the site.

As they begin to experience paranoia and hallucinations like the others including that of a young girl and her inflatable ball, they race against time to figure out what's going on and whether any of it has any connection to serial killer and sadist Alistair Pratt (STEPHEN REA) who's been eluding Mike for years.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Not long ago, the "dot-coms" - as Internet companies became to be known and later ridiculed - threatened to take over the world, or at least the business end of it. Despite few of them actually managing to generate any revenue, people poured billions into them and drove the economy wild. Yet, due to poor or non-existent business plans, lack of income and ideas ranging from mediocre to idiotic, most of them went belly up just as fast as they blossomed.

With the "dot-com" moniker now being something most companies try to avoid being associated with, it's surprising that "feardotcom" would have the audacity to use that in its title. I suppose that's because "Fear" has already been used several times and doesn't really indicate the Internet nature of this plot. You see, people die after visiting the feardotcom website (in the movie - in real life that's yet to be determined) and thus two investigator types set out to figure out why that is.

Following in the example of real-life "dot-com" debacles, this film features a really bad idea supported by lots of money and created by people who apparently just threw together a bunch of ideas and figured they'd fly. Alas, neither they nor the collective effort manage to take flight, although the effort occurs in such a tremendously inept fashion that it actually manages to be somewhat amusing.

That, of course, was not the intention of director William Malone ("House on Haunted Hill," various episodes of TV's "Tales From the Crypt") or screenwriter Josephine Coyle ("Ballad of the Nightingale") who instead obviously wanted to make a creepy suspense/thriller-cum-horror flick.

They and the production crew certainly get the look down right for such a film. Everything's dark, dingy and/or wet (from water or blood) and nearly every light flickers when some sort of near subliminal imagery isn't flashing away on the screen. Yet, all of the visual and production design tricks in the world can't translate into a scary film if the story and characters are lame, and that's certainly the case here (unlike in another moody film such as "Seven" where all of it worked).

To avoid giving away any "surprises" regarding the plot and its revelations, I'll just say that the overall concept and gist regarding the Internet, an angry spirit and its modus operandi is silly to say the least and not particularly scary or intriguing in any other way. It's also a rather weak rip-off of the far more interesting and executed story in "The Changeling" (and even steals the recurring child's ball bit).

Perhaps if nearly every scene hadn't been so gosh darn dark - everyone here needs to make a trip to the home and office lighting store or at least learn that flicking that little doohickey on the wall makes them thar bulbs shine like they wuz the sun - then they may have noticed how bad the script really was.

Beyond all of the contrivances, clichés, obvious dialogue, convenient exposition and developments, and abundant illogical material and behavior, most of the characters break the old "don't do that" haunted house rules. They do so to the point that everything nearly turns into a parody of such moments in other films. In fact, things get so silly and stupid - especially near the end - that one is far more apt to laugh aloud rather than scream (although the latter will come to mind regarding one's time and money that will never be recovered after sitting through this).

Considering the poor material creating and then surrounding them, it should come as no surprise that the performances are just as bad. Stephen Dorff ("Deuces Wild," "Cecil B. Demented") pretty much plays the same character he always does - an intense looking and sounding but ultimately flat persona. Natascha McElhone ("Love's Labour's Lost," "Ronin") - who once had such a promising career - inexplicably shows up here and can't do anything with her poorly written character. We know next to nothing about either of them (or anyone for that matter) and thus don't care what happens.

At least they fare better than Stephen Rea ("The Musketeer," "The End of the Affair") who shows up as the standard-issue serial killer who enjoys taunting and torturing his victims before killing them. It's a thankless role and the actor leaves no lasting impression. Amelia Curtis ("Kevin & Perry Go Large," "Red Riding Hood") and Jeffrey Combs ("House on Haunted Hill," "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") appear in smaller roles, but similarly are powerless to overcome the staggering inanity and ineptitude of it all.

In the film, it's said that the victims die within 48 hours of visiting the titular website and do so in a manner in which they most feared (although even that's not consistent throughout the film). My greatest fear is watching a film that's so bad that it literally sucks the life right out of you, and I think this one came pretty close.

While watching it, all I could think about was that either I must have visited that website during the preceding two days, or that I should have done just that exactly 48 hours before the film began. In either regard, "feardotcom" rates as a 1 out of 10 simply for generating some unintentional laughs.

Reviewed August 28, 2002 / Posted August 30, 2002

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