Ask any father of a dating teenage girl what his worst nightmare is and he'll describe something close to the plot of James Foley's "Fear."
It's like this: The virginal daughter, certain that she has found Mr. Right, brings home Mr. Wrong, a man who has the unctuous manner of an insurance salesman and the eyes of a serial killer. When the father warns her that she is dating Ted Bundy, she laughs in his face because, hey, that's what he says about all of her boyfriends.
This time, he's right.
"Fear" belongs to that relatively new genre of "intimates from hell" psychological thriller, stories built around the notion that someone invited into your home is homicidal. There have been crazy stepfathers, nannies, roommates, husbands and adopted children, and now, the dreaded boyfriend.
There is a clear formula to these films and "Fear" writer Christopher Crowe knows how to follow it. He wrote "Whispers in the Dark," in which Alan Alda played psychiatrist Annabella Sciorra's mentor from hell. "Fear," thanks mostly to Foley's stylish direction and a couple of strong performances, is a much better movie than "Whispers," but those familiar with the formula will get no major surprises.
"Fear" stars Mark Wahlberg, Marky Mark of underwear ad fame, as the cat that daughter Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) drags home. William Petersen is her Seattle architect father, Amy Brenneman her overbearing stepmother and Christopher Gray her young stepbrother.
The heavy drumbeat music over the opening credits suggest you're about to watch a jungle adventure, and that proves to be Foley's design for the movie. Wahlberg's David McCall is a predator, Nicole is his prey and Petersen's Steve Walker is the great white hunter trying to drive the beast away. A scene where David is chasing a person running from him in the woods is edited in a way meant to emulate the violence in nature when a big cat overtakes and kills a young gazelle.
"Fear" is aptly named. It plays to every parent's fear that they won't be able to protect their children from danger. And it is at its best in depicting the concerned father/rebellious daughter relationship. Steve and Nicole are at that dramatic juncture where the daughter comes of age and looks to shift her affections, with an estrogen rush, toward another male.
Fathers are notorious bad sports about their diminished role in their daughters' lives, particularly when their replacement is an unemployed drifter with no verifiable past. And Petersen, a terrific actor who should be getting bigger and better parts, takes Steve Walker through the gauntlet of emotions, from suspicion to dread to fighting mad, and his fury gives the film's "Straw Dogs" finale a potent hero.
Witherspoon, the young sister in "The Man in the Moon," is completely convincing as a lovesick teen trusting her feelings. And Alyssa Milano, Tony Danza's daughter from the TV series "Who's the Boss?," is very good as Nicole's troubled, and trouble-seeking, best friend.
The film's problems revolve around Wahlberg. The model and former hip-hop artist is good at miming psychopathic evil. He has a stare that will melt steel. But it's like a big joke on the audience that Nicole looks at him from across the room and sees a dreamboat. What we see looks like a paroled sex offender, one who did not ask to be castrated before his release.
David's voice, a sort of whispered sleaziness, and his manner, while trying to ingratiate himself with Nicole's family, make him more comical than menacing. Every scene in the movie where people react to him as if they were speaking to a normal person is laugh-out-loud funny. His mental state wouldn't be more obvious if he were wearing Jason's hockey mask.
Parents thinking that "Fear" might be an instructive cautionary tale for their daughters should prepare for some uncomfortable moments. Nicole's deflowering scene is gamy enough but there is some sexual contact during a roller-coaster ride that will shatter your faith in the wholesomeness of family theme parks.
Father knows best--girls shouldn't date until they're 30.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic violence and terror, sexuality, language and drug use. Times guidelines: You've got the works, blunt sexuality, on-screen mutilation, nonstop profanity, and a dog's head pops through a doggy door without his body.
Mark WahlbergDavid McCall
Reese WitherspoonNicole Walker
William PetersenSteve Walker
Amy BrennemanLaura Walker
Alyssa MilanoMargo Masse
A Brian Grazer production, for Imagine Entertainment. Released by Universal. Director James Foley. Producers Grazer, Ric Kidney. Screenplay Christopher Crowe. Cinematography Thomas Kloss. Editor David Brenner. Production design Alex McDowell. Art director Richard Hudolin. Set designers Ivana Vasak, Bjorn Ollner. Music Carter Burwell. Costumes Kirsten Everberg. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.