I liked William Malone’s 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill, and I remember watching his 2002 follow-up Feardotcom back when I was working in a video store. All I remember about it at the time is that it felt immediately dated, and already a little too reminiscent of that year’s American remake of The Ring. (Even though Feardotcom actually beat The Ring into theatres by a couple of months, though of course the Japanese original had already been out for a few years by then.)
Re-watching Feardotcom today, it still feels immediately dated and sort of derivative of the general atmosphere that was starting to pervade horror cinema as the Asian horror boom began to make its way to American shores, but it also feels weirdly precognizant and definitely very, very of a piece with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill.
Specifically, while still being a stylized ghost movie in the House on Haunted Hill mold, Feardotcom also prefigures the rise of the torture porn genre, and you could extract almost the entire aesthetic of Saw (which wouldn’t hit theatres for two more years) from this film. Meanwhile, the titular website and some of the investigation scenes feature found-footage segments of the sort that would shortly become ubiquitous in horror circles.
While the plot is ostensibly a lift of Ringu, with a “live-cam death site” replacing the cursed video tape as the film’s deadly MacGuffin, following a police detective (Stephen Dorff) and a researcher from the Department of Health (Natasha McElhone) as they try to track down a serial killer who is torturing people to death online, while also trying to figure out why people who went to the website are dying mysteriously within 48 hours, this isn’t a movie that lives and dies by plot. In fact, it feels more like it careens from one moment to another than like it actually has a story, helped along by the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere that Malone conjures up.
Feardotcom is pure stylistic indulgence. From a prominently-featured reference to Mad Love‘s Dr. Gogol in graffiti within the first two minutes to the fact that the film’s cold opening features Udo Kier playing a character named Polidori to a creepy ghost girl with pale hair and a white ball that is probably a nod to the Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, we’re deep into a territory of unrealism before the movie gets very far.
In spite of the website premise, the New York City of Feardotcom is a timeless, rainy, noir metropolis that feels more like the fictional and unspecified urban landscapes of weird fiction than any real or modern place. (See also the setting of Alex Proyas’ Dark City from four years before.)
Exteriors are always the brightest points in the film, in spite of the constant rain, while interiors are claustrophobic and dimly lit, with characters trapped in pools of light like insects frozen in amber, even when they occupy otherwise expansive rooms. As in House on Haunted Hill, Malone juxtaposes grandeur and decay, as in a scene where a hallway filled with peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights culminates in an elevator with marble panels and gilt edges.
By this point, deteriorating industrial backdrops had already become de rigueur in horror cinema, but in Feardotcom these urban hellscapes are incorporated into the proceedings in ways that make them feel as much internal as external. They are a part of the deteriorating effect that the events of the movie are having on the psyches of the characters. (In some ways, Feardotcom probably feels somewhat less dated now than it did at the time, because the fact that the internet never looked or worked like that just seems part and parcel to Malone’s odd, anachronistic setting, rather than bad artistic direction.)
In spite of sharing a lot in common with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill, however, Feardotcom is never as good as its elder sibling, mostly because it is humorless and lacks that film’s strong central premise (borrowed from the William Castle original) and the accompanying performances of Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen. (Also, while the ghosts here are certainly in the same family tree, there are no Jacob’s Ladder-style vibrating heads.)
Still, it’s intriguing to stack the two next to each other, and see how much Malone’s aesthetic vision influences both, for good and for ill. From the same creepy sadomasochistic montages to the same use of plastinated bodies in display cases as a backdrop, there’s even an odd fetish for desk-mounted pencil sharpeners in both films. Feardotcom also relies on a similarly regrettable use of CGI in its closing moments, although it is considerably toned down from the ending of House on Haunted Hill.
Feardotcom boasts a lot of familiar faces in its supporting cast. Besides the aforementioned Udo Kier in its cold opening, Stephen Rea has a role as the mad doctor serial killer, while Jeffrey Combs plays Stephen Dorff’s dissolute partner. (Combs and Malone seem to have had a good working relationship, as the former is in most of the latter’s handful of feature films.)
Make no mistake, Feardotcom is a nearly-plotless and often inept movie that is primarily of interest because it is so deeply mired in William Malone’s particular vision while also being such an odd harbinger of things to come. I found it fascinating in its way, but fascinating should not necessarily be confused with good.
Sadly, even if Feardotcom had benefitted from a tighter script, it seems unlikely that it would have succeeded on many more levels than it does. Fortunately, the weird stylistic decisions of William Malone are more than enough to keep it oddly compelling, at least for me, even while it stumbles around from one “spooky” scene to another. I remember his Masters of Horror episode “The Fair Haired Child” having a somewhat similar aesthetic, and I can’t actually remember if I already checked out his 2008 film Parasomnia, or just watched the trailer, but I guess it’s time to give it a look (possibly again).
[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]