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The internet hasn't been around for a very long time. Still, so far the track record for internet-related horror films has not been encouraging. Hollywood has typically used the net to fashion inane storylines that try to make up for hipness what they lack in everything else. Ordinarily, there would be no reason to get excited over a film like FEARDOTCOM.

But the genre just wouldn't be much fun if it didn't throw you for a loop every now and then, right?

I'm as surprised as you are, but FEARDOTCOM is a truly solid horror film, which I can strongly recommend. Yes, this film which could have easily been another ultra-hip cash-in turns out to be something completely different, albeit not completely original.

The film opens with a series of strange deaths. For the two days preceding their deaths, the victims have appeared lethargic, worn out, and a little insane. The victims have hallucinated, their visions typically revolving around a little girl, all in white. The symptoms end in their violent deaths. They begin with the Fear site.

New York City cop, Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff - BLADE, CECIL B. DEMENTED) and health researcher, Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone - SOLARIS, THE TRUMAN SHOW) stumble onto this link and start investigating the source of the website.

Reilly fears the site may lead him to a serial killer, Alistair (Stephen Rea - THE CRYING GAME, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE), that has been haunting him for some time. But then who is the little girl? And how do these supernatural occurrences explain themselves?

I could map it out for you, but that would be telling.

William Malone directs FEARDOTCOM. Malone is an interesting new talent who directed an admirable re-working of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL a couple years back (He also did the ALIEN rip-off CREATURE in the eighties, but we won't hold that against him).

He uses a unique style here, evoking the NYC griminess of 1970s cop thrillers and post-SEVEN fare, combined with a strong dose of atmosphere reminiscent of recent Asian horror. Atmosphere is what runs the film. Malone has said that he wanted this to be an energy-driven film, one that could almost play as a silent film. Hence, there isn't much dialogue here and what exposition is present is purposely made to seem awkward and creepy. It's as if the viewer could slip into a nightmare at any given moment. A great use of scope is also apparent, with images and extra information, creeping along the borders of the screen (Hence, "full screen" presentations are going to look awful).

It would be impossible to judge this film fairly without bringing up a lot of similarities to Hideo Nakata's RINGU. Instead of a videotape leading to one's death, it's a website. Instead of having seven days until your death, it's 48 hours. There's even a mystery involving a little girl and at least one visit to a watery grave. FEARDOTCOM is simply not an original concept.

Ordinarily, swiping plot points from a classic like RINGU would send me screaming along a repetitive rant, with extra bile thrown in just to make my disgust clear. But I forgive FEARDOTCOM. For one, the filmmakers openly admit to taking some of the ideas, as Asian and Italian filmmakers have in the past, and incorporating it into their film. For another, what the film lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in eerie execution.

Malone successfully creates a genuine feeling of dread missing in today's horror films. As Reilly and Huston race to find the source of the Fear site, the clock is ticking and things are always looking more and more hopeless - especially once you consider our heroes could slip into insanity. The dread is interrupted every now and then by some truly violent set-pieces that actually scare the viewer. What a concept.

No one should ever look for intelligent reviews at the Internet Movie Database (for that you come to Horror Express, right?). The reviews for FEARDOTCOM are a good reason why. The film has managed to land in their bottom 100, despite many of the viewers admitting they didn't sit through the whole film. Most of the reviews center around their discomfort with graphic images. People expecting a light-hearted thrill ride in the tradition of SCREAM had best go elsewhere. FEARDOTCOM features scenes of torture, mutilation, dismemberment and grisly murder. This isn't a psychological thriller. This is an honest to God horror film.

There's also a good use of the supporting cast here. Stephen Rea turns in a wonderfully sinister performance as a sadistic torturer and killer. His existence drives home the main logical question of FEARDOTCOM. Why would anyone log onto this site? It's our own morbid curiosity. The same thing that leads to the success of reality shows built around human misery or keeps people visiting hidden camera websites. The first lesson I was taught in journalism (Yes, I've actually had classes!) was the oft-repeated phrase, "If it bleeds, it leads." If we didn't watch, there would be no need to teach this.

Alistair will never settle for simply shooting or stabbing a victim. The victim must be tortured, debased and made to suffer. "I believe death should be repulsive so we don't grow too fond of it," he says. We become numb to everything in sight, so he makes sure he has plenty of interested viewers. He may be a threat, inflicting the pain, but what about the thousands watching on their terminals?

Of course, he may be a victim of his own experiment. As the body count mounts, he has himself become numb to the pain he inflicts. He acknowledges his own cruelty and hypocrisy, calmly explaining to his victim, "I know what I should feel. I just can't feel it." The lack of any conscience or humanity makes him all the more dangerous.

Likewise, Jeffrey Combs appears as one of Reilly's peers on the force, and it carries a bit more weight (though not by much) than most roles of its type. Udo Kier even shows up early on as the dialogue-free first victim, as if christening the film and giving his blessing.

FEARDOTCOM is not a complete winner of course. I have already mentioned the issues with the film's lack of originality. Likewise, I was disappointed with the climax. Not in the storytelling, but in the way the conclusion was handled. After a film built around scant design and heavy atmosphere, digital effects become an intruder. I won't say how they are used, but it's not as effective as it would have been without them.

The internet is normally not a source of terror in the movies. But William Malone has created a fine exception to the rule. Things like this really creep up and surprise you, which is why we keep coming back. Despite its flaws, FEARDOTCOM is a good, solid, scary ride.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis