Sometimes a film ages so badly, rewatching them years later almost shifts the thing into a completely different genre – take the generically named Fear for example, a 1996 slice psychoploitation that supposedly was to be Fatal Attraction for teens and launched the career of not only Reece Witherspoon but also graduated Mark Wahlberg from his tenure with the Funky Bunch.
Now, I’m not saying that James Foley’s simple-but-effective thriller is poorly made, but watching it over 25 years after its release it becomes amusingly clear that its straight-ahead approach could use something of a more timely approach, especially when casting an eye over its sexually charged, stalker shenanigans in these slightly more enlightened times.
Sixteen year old Nicole Walker is out at a bar with her more sexually active friend, Margo and her sexless guy friend Gary, when bumps into the smoldering, sleepy eyes and rock hard pecs of David McCall and his relentless charm onslaught wins over the virginal girl with a minmum amount of effort. At first, David seems to be the perfect gentlemen and while his easy, respectful manner wins over the majority of her family (step-mom Laura in particular), stressed architect father Steven is far more suspicious of this young man who has breezed into their lives and stolen his little girl’s heart. Everyone chalks this up to Steven being highly resistant to the idea to his little angel becoming a woman and hanging out with a guy who is built like an underwear model, but as time goes on, red flags start aggressively popping up all over the place. For a start, his buddies all look like drug dealers and he has not respect for curfews, but things start getting way more serious when when he sneaks into the house one night and claims Nicole’s virginity and then later kicks the living shit out of Gary when he witnesses an innocent hug between the two that results in her getting a black eye for her troubles.
Nicole calls everything off, but this only kicks David’s rather alarming resolve into high gear, first by talking his way back into his girlfriend’s life and then framing her father with a spot of light assault. However, his obsessive claim of Nicole hits a massive speed bump when she witnesses him “cheating” on her with her friend Margo, not knowing that she was under the influence of drugs and the act was definitely not consensual and his attempts go from obsessive to outright homicidal.
Gathering his low life pals together, he plans an all out home invasion of Nicole’s house that will most likely leave her family dead, but as the siege progresses, the Walker’s – plus Margo – fight back against this disturbing and perverse proclamation of love.
As I alluded to earlier, watching Fear these days is something of a bizarre experience, not least because of the unsettlingly weird feeling you get seeing Resse Witherspoon and Mark Walberg looking so distractingly young and the fact that the whole thing is so overwhelmingly nineties – Who would have thought that skipping out on a James Taylor concert could cause such horrific ramifications?
But back then, you could bash out a movie like this and seemingly not give much of a shit about any of the problematic issues the movie raises and merely concentrate on taking all the tropes laid down by movies like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Single White Female and transferring it to the already turbulent world of young love.
It’s a cracking concept, especially considering that most teens are hormonal little sociopaths even without the random acts of jelous murders dotted about the place, but while Fear ticks off its psycho-killer bingo card with ruthless efficiency, you can help but feel that in more delicate hands, it could have been much more that just another nail biter.
The main problem is that the film seems genuinely uncertain as to who the main character actually is and while a child of four could have probably told you it should be Nicole, her feelings and emotions are kind of marginalised by the fact that the only character thinking remotely clearly is William Peterson’s Steven. But of course it is! Who better to focus on in a film that deals with the physical and mental abuse that a violent jelous boyfriend inflicts upon a teenage girl and her friend than a middle aged white male!
In case you hadn’t picked up on the subtle tone, I’m being sarcastic, but it’s still rather galling that a movie, even a 90’s one, decides to chiefly funnel its tension and fear though the guy who played the protagonist in Manhunter and not the real victim – the impossibly angelic looking Witherspoon or even the disturbing treatment of Alyssa Milano’s raped and victimized Margo.
There’s also the weird fact that the movie forgets to stop having Walberg look as hot as fuck the moment he blatantly pops his sanity cap and while the actor does a great job of playing a villain, it would probably help matters more if he didn’t look so much like a heartthrob while snapping Gary’s neck like celery or feeding the severed head of the family alsatian through a doggy door, I mean, it’s not a million miles away from hiring Channing Tatum to play Norman fucking Bates and a final act headwound or something would have been nice if only to make him more gross to impressionable girls in the audience.
However, leaving the serious matter of toxic masculinity and abuse behind for a minute, Fear brings forth a whole lot of unintentional laughs though how naive the whole thing is from some impressively shitty parenting – Amy Brenneman’s step mom in particular can’t seem to read a situation to save her life – and some guffaw inducing attempts at eroticism that makes the animal cracker scene from Armageddon look like From Here To Eternity. Forgive my bluntness, but wouldn’t fingering a girl on a careening rollercoaster be an incredibly bad idea to carry out? Surely the second they hit a particularly violent loop the loop he’d be in her up to the elbow!
Basically put, while Fear mainly loses points thanks to some stunningly dates sexual politics that come across as downright irresponsible, its sledgehammer touch and central performance by Wahlberg does still mean that the concept carries some legitimate threat, it’s just a shame that a movie that concerns itself with the issues of a sixteen year old girl is instead told from an entirely male point of view to the extent that she doesn’t even get to perform the final coup de grace, with daddy instead saving the day by launching the interloper out of a window like an Olympic hammer thrower.
A decent enough thriller, Fear nevertheless misses a golden opportunity to take some responsibility and deal with some very real female issues in favour of having the overlying message play more in the masculine realms of “don’t fuck with daddy”.
A missed chance, I Fear.