Fear was among the last of a cycle of psychological thrillers that haunted multiplexes in the 1990’s. The James Foley-directed thriller echoed movies like Unlawful Entry, Pacific Heights, Poison Ivy, and The Crush. Critics hated it, but teen audiences lapped up the high school ‘Fatal Attraction’ story. The combination of young stars Reese Witherspoon and Mark Whalberg along with its ’90’s soundtrack proved to be a big hit with the MTV crowd. By the time Fear had finished its theatrical run it had earned a better-than-expected $20 million.
Universal Pictures recently announced that they are considering re-visiting Fear with a remake. Perhaps in response to this news, Netflix has added the 90’s thriller to its menu in September. If you grew up in the 1990’s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this stalking thriller. For younger audiences, we’ll take a dive into the time capsule and tell you if it’s worth checking out.
Sixteen-year-old Nicole (Reese Witherspoon), like most teenagers, feels smothered by her over-protective father (William Petersen). When she meets the mysterious David (Mark Whalberg), she finally has the independence from her family she’s been seeking. Nicole’s father, Steve, is instantly suspicious of David. Is there something wrong with David? Or is Steve really just an overprotective father afraid of letting his daughter grow up?
Fear Surprises With Its Early Father-Daughter Story
Fear could have easily fallen into the pitfalls of the run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. To a large extent, Christopher Crowe’s screenplay does indeed indulge in some familiar tropes. Willam Petersen’s concerned father, Steve, makes the usual poor decisions that inadvertently aid David’s manipulations of Nicole. In addition, Alyssa Milano’s Margo is regulated to playing the friend whose sole function is to be the victim who shows the audience how bad David can be.
To its credit, Fear surprises with a story that’s more layered than one would expect from this genre. Crowe’s focus on the father-daughter dynamic in adolescence gives Fear a little dramatic heft through its first half. While it’s not overly deep, Fear’s early emphasis on a father trying to protect his daughter and a teenager wanting to grow up has some resonance.
Things Take A Sharp Turn In The Third ACt
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Fear morphs from a pseudo-serious drama into an over-the-top version of Fatal Attraction. Maybe it’s when Mark Whalberg’s David carves Nicole’s name into his chest. Or it could be when David chases down Nicole’s platonic male friend, Gary, and snaps his neck. Either way Fear takes a sharp point and throws any subtly to the wind. As Fear hits its third act, it rapidly descends into a silly and violent home invasion thriller.
Once a dog’s severed head is deposited through a doggie door you know the shit has hit the fan.
Once a dog’s severed head is deposited through a doggie door you know the shit has hit the fan. It’s at this precise moment where Fear ditches the Fatal Attraction narrative for its own version of Straw Dogs. To be fair, Fear wasn’t delivering Oscar-worthy drama in its first half, so the change in tempo is in and of itself not the problem. To the contrary, James Foley just doesn’t seem up to the challenge of filming the home invasion angle with any sense of flair. There is nothing over-the-top with Foley’s generic made-for-television filming of the action. As a result, Fear’s climax lacks suspense and tension, ending on jarringly abrupt note.
Fear Boasts an Impressive Cast for a Generic Thriller
Producer Brian Grazer must have had a lot of dirt on actors in the ’90’s. In spite of its formulaic story, Fear has an impressive cast that includes William Petersen (CSI, Manhunter), Amy Brenneman (Heat), and Alyssa Milano (Who’s the Boss). Fear also marked the launching point for mega-stars Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg.
Not surprisingly then, Fear is anchored by strong performances across the board. Both Petersen and Witherspoon are convincing in their roles as father and daughter. Witherspoon demonstrates an impressive range in what is a rather underwritten role. As the overprotective father, Petersen remains the likeable ‘everyman’ even when his character blunders and oversteps in his role as father.
The ease with which Wahlberg turns from charming ‘ boy next door’ to explosive psychopathy is the only thing about the movie that inspires ‘Fear’.
Yet it’s Mark Whalberg who steals much of the movie with his creepy performance. Wahlberg’s David is an admittedly effective ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ characterization. The ease with which Walhberg turns from charming ‘boy next door’ to explosive psychopath is probably the only thing about the movie that inspires’Fear’.
Fear Falls Somewhere Between Bad Movie and Guilty Pleasure
By the end of Fear, it’s hard to tell if you’ve watched a bad movie or a movie that’s bad enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure. It’s a frustratingly uneven film that can’t decide if it’s a serious drama or a stupid popcorn thriller. With the quality of actors, Fear is at its best for the first half when it feels like the movie is trying to tell a story. Director James Foley doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the movie’s more ludicrous home invasion claims. Nonetheless, Fear does enough right to make it a fun view for most audiences.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-