20 years ago, Hollywood’s first internet thriller launched a terrifying new genre

Perhaps the first sign the film was not going to be a believable cyber-horror around its central snuff-based website. The real owners of the now defunct Fear.com would have refused to give up their domain name no matter how much money the producers put in their way, meaning the depraved souls of the movie could only watch a crazed doctor slowly torturing young women in an industrial lair in logging into feardotcom.com.

Released on August 30, 2022, the notorious flop wasn’t the first scare fest to explore the dark side of the web. Just a year ago Impulse helped extend the J-horror scene’s conquest of America with the story of malevolent spirits infiltrating the web. Hollywood had previously offered several cautionary tales, ranging from virtual reality madness to lawn mower man 2: Beyond cyberspace to the slightly more well-founded paranoia of The Internet. As the ancestor of the subgenre known as torture porn, however, FeardotCom was a different beast.

Possibly burned by the toothless charges against him House on the haunted hill remake, director William Malone intended to do the whole movie look like a nightmare, saying, “I wanted it to be like one of those things when you wake up in the middle of the night and think you’re awake but still dreaming.” Maybe that’s why FeardotCom seems allergic to any form of lighting – and why it’s dominated by the kind of flickering images you’d expect from a Marilyn Manson video. Unfortunately, like most bad dreams, the film defies all sense of logic.

FeardotCom starts out quite promisingly. A distressed man (Udo Kier) begins to have visions of a scary young girl on a subway before being fatally hit by a train. As the victims of the ring, his final facial expression is terrifying with wide eyes and an open jaw. But as brooding detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) and nondescript Health Department researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) will discover, it’s a voyeuristic website rather than a cursed videotape that’s responsible.

Malone initially does an effective job of raising the tension as several other deviants learn that curiosity can really kill the cat. Eerie camcorder footage shows a German couple descending into eye-bleeding madness. There’s an effective nod to Stephen King Christina when Terry’s boss is driven to his death by a car with a mind of its own.

The scariest thing in the movie. Warner Bros.

The explanation for these horrific murders, however, essentially relegates FeardotCom‘s unique selling point to an afterthought. Each victim had previously visited a website run by Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), a failed doctor who spends his days slicing and chopping women in the name of entertainment. As Don’t fuck with cats proven, the concept of a killer spreading his depravity online remains chilling. Yet Pratt’s motives are brushed aside by metaphysical gibberish involving a vengeful ghost. Rea’s screen time barely adds five minutes.

Turns out the subway kid was a hemophiliac Pratt mutilated over a 48 hour period for all the most evil souls on the net to see. Anyone who types in the ridiculous URL will now be killed by their worst fear two days later, whether they’re an anonymous sadist or, as in the case of poor cockroach-phobic forensic specialist Denise Stone (Amelia Curtis ), simply searching the site in the performance of its duties.

Natascha McElhone and Stephen Dorff look horrified by something, maybe the film’s script.Warner Bros.

FeardotCom, therefore, can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an outlandish supernatural fable, a dark tech-noir, or a cynical gorefest. He ultimately fails to be one of them. The mind’s motives are muddled, the web aspect is underutilized, and much of the gruesome violence is left to the imagination. You get the sense that the impressive cast wondered exactly what they signed up for.

Dorff, which is essentially disappointment admitted in the film, sleepwalks virtually throughout the investigation. Portrayed as misinterpreted by Malone, McElhone also reacts to the terror that overwhelms New York with as much urgency as a dial-up modem. The chemistry between Mike and Terry is so non-existent that you can easily reach the end of 101 Minutes of the Work without realizing that they were supposed to be love interests.

Then there’s Oscar-nominated Rea, who seems to prefer being audited rather than spouting pretentious dialogues like “Reducing relationships to anonymous electronic impulses is a perversion.” More interested in talking than showing, his character Hannibal Lecter-lite commits the ultimate cardinal sin when it comes to boogeymen: he’s boring as water from a ditch.

Stephen Rea in manic mode in the shade of the beetroot. Warner Bros.

FeardotCom’s critical mayhem – it became only the seventh film to receive CinemaScore’s dreaded F-ranking – and non-recovery even half of its $40 million budget seemed to dissuade Tinseltown from offering a similar fare. You had to wait for the 2005 groundbreaking revenge movie hard candy for another lesson on the dangers of the Internet.

Since then we’ve had the mildly hypocritical condemnation of torture porn not founddated on arrival Chat, and an entire cottage industry of horrors played entirely on social media screens with varying degrees of success. This ugly, contradictory mess is still the subgenre’s biggest waste of bandwidth, though.