A gruesome site for sore eyes

August 30, 2002|By Manohla Dargis | Manohla Dargis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the great guilty pleasures of moviegoing is watching a film you expect to be bad turn out to be spectacularly bad. A horror movie that puts its own spin on the word "howler," feardotcom opens with a cameo from Udo Kier, a character actor whose presence usually portends either something pretty good (as when he's in a Lars von Trier film) or something pretty awful (take your pick, Barb Wire or The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Clutching a book to his body and rolling his bloodshot eyes, Kier stumbles across a sound stage that's desperately trying to pass itself off as a New York subway platform and desperately failing. It doesn't look good, in any sense of the term, and it looks much worse once a little girl comes on the scene wearing a smear of black lipstick and a peroxide blond wig left over from the British shocker Village of the Damned. Rolling his eyes wildly, Kier flings himself into the path of an oncoming train, a putatively irrational act that seems all too sensible the further this gibberish unfolds.

Kier's character and the diminutive she-devil have something to do with a phantom that's haunting the Internet and a serial killer named "the Doctor" (Stephen Rea), who videotapes his grisly crimes, then downloads the footage on the Web. A detective named Mike (Stephen Dorff) has been hunting the Doctor for some time but hasn't been able to catch a break. When victims with bleeding eyeballs begin to litter the city streets, however, prompting the intervention of a department of health inspector named Terry (Natascha McElhone), the cold case begins to warm.

All too slowly, Mike and Terry discover that the ghost in the machine draws Web surfers to a site called feardotcom where they, and we, can watch the bad doctor slowly torture women to death with an assortment of glinting needles and scalpels. The surfers get bloody eyes for their trouble, and we get this movie, which oscillates between ineptitude and incoherence, and inspires more mirth than fright.

The biggest or at least most obvious culprit in this regard is Josephine Coyle's script, which has its genesis in a story by the film's producer, Moshe Diamant, which may explain why this project got made at all. The story leapfrogs abruptly from scene to scene, and makes such a mockery of narrative logic and continuity that the cast tends to look either baffled (Dorff) or as if they're trying to remain unrecognized (Rea, a very long way from The Crying Game).

Director William Malone opts to light the film so darkly that it can be hard to make out everything in the frame. This is a good thing. Malone has made an obvious study of old Nine Inch Nails videos, and someone involved with feardotcom has grabbed onto the shell of Clive Barker's and David Cronenberg's work, but no one here has figured out that the shiny surface of fear isn't the same thing as its depth.

Then again, while such artlessness doesn't inspire shivers, it's definitely worth a few cheap laughs.

Manohla Dargis writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

feardotcom

Starring Stephen Rea, Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone

Directed by William Malone

Rated R (violence, including grisly images of torture, nudity and language)

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 112 minutes

Sun score: *

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