Buggles review

Fear Dot Com / Darkness Falls

Fear Dot Com
Director: William Malone
Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone, Stephen Rea

Darkness Falls
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Chaney Kley,
Emma Caulfield

I’ve recently come to the undisputable conclusion that we are in a new era of horror films: a gilded age dominated more by atmosphere and ambience than flying intestines and hockey masks. This new period was brought about single-handedly by M. Night Shyamalan’s "The Sixth Sense." Sure, the film had its ghoulishness and rotting corpses, but it also had an intellect that couldn't be found in the bulk of the teenage horror flicks that dominated the horror market during the 70’s, 80's and 90's. (Wes Craven's clever "Nightmare on Elm Street" excluded.)

While the trend may have been started by "The Sixth Sense," I'm of the opinion it reached it epoch with "The Ring," Dreamworks' truly frightening masterpiece in which a ghostly presence haunts a videotape that kills those who watch it. Based on a Japanese horror flick from a few years previous ("Ringu," now available at your local Hollywood Video) "The Ring" was a studied example of how to use the cinematic art form to scare the living piss out of people (myself included.)

Around the same time that “The Ring" was released, two other films appeared that also seemed to be exponents of this new philosophy or horror. "Fear Dot Com" came out almost in tandem with "The Ring" and many commented on the similarity of the movies’ narratives. ("Fear Dot Com" put a killer web site in place of "The Ring's" videotape.) "Darkness Falls" came out a few months later and centered around a tormented child -  a chief component of "The Ring" (and, of course, "The Sixth Sense.") But that's about where the similarities end, as neither film manage to create the well thought out story or genuinely disturbing chills that were the strengths of  “The Ring”.

“Fear Dot Com’s” plot is actually so similar to "The Ring" one wonders if they both were drawn from the same script. Both feature a female phantom seeking some form of retribution by invading a tool of modern technology. (An update of the classic horror technique of taking innocuous objects and turning them into instruments of terror.) "Fear Dot Com" also borrows a line from "Silence of the Lambs" with the inclusion of a deranged doctor (played by a slumming Steven Rhea) who has a predilection for luring attractive young women into his lair and torturing him to death. Near as I could fathom, the doctor then broadcasts these images over the web in the form of a snuff web page which attracts voyeurs from all walks of life to its doorstep. (But somehow doesn’t attract police attention.)  The bodies begin piling up when the web site's visitors (all of whom live in New York City) start dying, often according to their worst fear. A police detective (improbably played by Steven Dorff) and a Health Inspector (Natasha McElhone) slowly start to unravel the mystery, which leads them both to view the site, which... well I won't give it all away. It’s hard to summon up the effort required to actually pay attention to the plot, and there are scant rewards upon doing so. Even more lifeless than “Fear Dot Com’s” story is the dialogue, which is so unimaginative that in two instances I was able to speak along with the characters, despite having never seen the film.

On the plus side, "Fear Dot Com" does a good job of using the camera to create an unnerving mood. Shot in a deluge of flat blues and grays (One suspects the filmmakers pilfered their cameramen from "N.Y.P.D. Blue") and featuring murder victims whose eyes cloud with blood, the movie has a nice aesthetic. Some reviewers have snidely pointed out that the whole flick looks like a giant Marilyn Manson video, which it does, but hey, I like those videos. Another positive aspect of the film is the inclusion of Bruce Campbell-like cult actor Jeffrey Combs as an alcoholic detective who could not be more jaded. (It’s good to see him working.)

"Darkness Falls" falls starts out strong and then never regains its initial footing. The film opens with a segment describing the origin of the Tooth Fairy, a kindly woman who lived in the town of Darkness Falls a hundred years ago and used to give the local children a gold coin for their last baby tooth. In a string of bad breaks, the Tooth Fairy is horribly disfigured, then accused of murdering some missing children and executed by the angry townsfolk, who learn the errors of their ways the next day when the children show up unharmed. While I don't like films that immediately reveal the backstory of the villain, it's a forgivable indiscretion. With the bad-guy-origin out of the way, the camera switches to the modern looking bedroom of young Kyle Wash, a likeable adolescent who is about to go to sleep after losing his final baby tooth. He seems noticeably uneasy, and we, being the clever audience that we are, can only presume he is aware of the legend of the Tooth Fairy. The obligatory false scare is created when a knock comes at his window and in climbs young Caitlin, a puppy-love interest. (It's actually a funny moment when a scene we've seen in films since the forties, is knocked into the modern era via the gender switch.) Caitlin retires through the window from whence she came and Kyle once again attempts slumber. But he hears voices and both he and the viewer can just vaguely catch site of the masked Tooth Fairy in the darkness. She strikes and Kyle runs from his room. His mother finds him in the bathroom, and walks into his room to show him there's nothing to be afraid of, Of course, there is, she is killed, and young Kyle is carted away to a life of foster care and psychiatric drugs.

Fast forward ten years and Caitlin, now an attractive young woman, is looking after her young brother who's been diagnose with… well, I’ve forgotten the technical term, but it’s “a fear of the dark.” Realizing her brother's symptoms match what Kyle was reported to have suffered from, Caitlin tracks him down in Nevada. Now an edgy, pill popping artist, Kyle returns to the town of Darkness Falls to face his, and the town’s, personal demon.

Not a bad set up, but it's unfortunately all downhill from there. It's not long before we can clearly see the flying Tooth Fairy, which mitigates her impact as a scare device (so much of fright is about what you don't see.) And once the bodies start dropping, "Darkness Falls" becomes more of an action flick along the lines of "Indiana Jones versus the Wicked Witch of the East." The shrieking villainess manages to wipe out a station full of police officers in a scene reminiscent of 2001's "Jeepers Creepers" (itself reminiscent of "The Terminator.") and then it's up to Kyle to keep Caitlin, her brother and the various charcters who are clearly marked as "Tooth Fairy" fodder alive. (The minute one tag along character states "We're safe in the car," you know his time has come.) Things trot along at a swift pace and soon we are blessedly delivered to an ending that offers no surprises.

If I had to pick the better of the two films, I go with “Fear Dot Com” though there’s obviously not much to recommend about either. Both movies, however, do have the earmarks of the new style of horror cinema that puts more weight on atmosphere and less on gore. Angst ridden camerawork pervades both “Fear Dot Com” and “Darkness Falls” and that, in itself, deserves some commendation. These particular attempts may fall very flat, but it’s not hard to believe that the filmmakers of both projects can take the experience garnered from these movies and combine it with better storytelling to create some impressive material in the future.

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