A website that kills anyone who views it exactly 48 hours later. The ghost of a young girl that appears to the victims before their deaths. A random stream of disturbing, black and white images which hold the key to a dark secret. A woman racing against time to find out the truth before she and someone she cares about become victims. If this sounds more than a little familiar, you've probably seen the Japanese horror movie Ring or its recent American remake. In Ring, it was a videotape that killed you seven days later. Feardotcom is more up to date technologically and, true to the fast-moving age we live in, it gives its victims less time to find a way out.
Natascha McElhone stars as government health inspector Terry Huston, who's called in when the New York police start finding dead bodies which have bled from their eyes, noses and mouths. A virus is soon ruled out yet the deaths seem otherwise unconnected and inexplicable. When Terry's boss becomes the next to die, she and homicide detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff, damagingly miscast) discover the victims all spent a lot of time on the internet and an analysis of their hard drives reveals that they all visited a site called Feardotcom. Reilly is familiar with the domain name as it's one of many that's been used by a sadistic serial killer known as the Doctor (Stephen Rea, hamming it up), who tortures women to death live on webcam for a paying audience of sickos. The Doctor has still not been caught and is currently in the process of choosing his next patient. Is he behind the unexplained deaths or is something even more sinister responsible?
When it's released on DVD, Feardotcom should join Darkness Falls and They in a box set entitled "Dull, derivative horror films that try to compensate for bad scripts with over-stylised art direction". Just about every genre movie you see these days is lit like Seven, with every shot as dark as possible, the gloom broken only by flickering lighting. While David Fincher used the look sparingly, when it was appropriate, Feardotcom director William Malone and his crew light every scene and every location the same way, whether it's a disused factory, a hospital, an apartment or a police station. You wonder whether the electricians who put the lights in these buildings knew they were going to be visited by a ghost. While this makes the trailers and promotional photos look impressively moody, shooting a whole film this way makes the end result seem self-conscious and artificial, like the film-makers thought they could manufacture a scary atmosphere.
The pervading grimness, slow pacing, and complete lack of humour are also mistakes. Playing this kind of film completely straight is taking a big risk with the audience's patience - you'd better have a good script. Then there's the lack of characterisation, which also hurt this week's other horror release, Wrong Turn. The only personal information we get to know about Dorff and McElhone's characters are that he's still obsessed with the Doctor case and she has a cat. When their lives are endangered, it's hard to feel involved. This leaves a lot of dead screen time to contemplate the many lapses in logic. For example, are health inspectors usually asked to collaborate on murder investigations and are they allowed to walk into police stations unaccompanied and go through files? Why does the ghost of an American girl have a European accent? How does The Doctor, who's being hunted by the FBI, set up his webcasts without being tracked down, how does he overcome two armed cops and why does his site's visitor count instantly increase the moment something happens on screen? Lastly and most perplexingly, why does the ghost wait till the final scene to do what it's wanted to do all along?