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 special 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 soundstage that's desperately trying to pass itself off as a New York City 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 materializes 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 as wildly as a drunk rolls dice, Kier flings himself into the path of a 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 puts 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 into 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 it 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").
Perhaps because he read the script--and was trying to make Luxembourg and Montreal pass for New York--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.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, including grisly images of torture, nudity and language. Times guidelines: scenes of sexualized violence against women and intimations of fetishism.
Stephen Rea...Alistair / "the Doctor"
Released by Warner Bros. An MDP Worldwide presentation of an ApolloMedia/Fear.com Productions/Carousel Film Company Co-Production with the support of the Film Fund Luxembourg. Director William Malone. Screenwriter Josephine Coyle, from a story by Moshe Diamant. Producers Moshe Diamant and Limor Diamant. Cinematographer Christian Sebaldt. Editor Alan Strachan. Production designer Jerome Latour. Music Nicolas Pike. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.