1. First Release
Fear is a pitiful rehash of all the stranger-danger thrillers of the '90s (such as Cape Fear, 1991), but it lacks any of the intriguing subtleties and suggestions characterising the best films in that cycle.
Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) is a bright, sweet girl living in a mildly troubled household. Her natural curiosities fix on the James Dean-like David (Mark Wahlberg, aka rapper Marky Mark).
The teen audience that sat around me groaned and squealed when Nicole made her first, over-trusting mistake: giving David the security code to her home. The morning after their first tryst, David begins revealing his evil psychoses. Once Nicole's father (William Petersen) decides to intervene, we are plunged into a series of confrontations that culminate in a Straw Dogs-style siege of the family home.
Mindless and hysterical, Fear has much in common with John Schlesinger's piece of slop, Eye for an Eye (1996). In particular, both films gleefully, paranoically demonise the working class. David is the ultimate white trash villain: he does not attend school, cannot spell properly, drinks beer, shoots pool, spray-paints his abode and even keeps a Child's Play doll in his room.
Still, for a dangerous nut, this guy oozes a certain charm. The splendid scene in which David masturbates Nicole as they ride a Big Dipper, and a cover version of The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" fills the soundtrack, managed to rivet me to the screen for one precious minute of this awful movie.
A wave of films emerged in the early 1990s, especially in the USA, comprising a sub-genre known as the intimacy thriller: stories in which the menace of the Other comes from someone initially reassuring, protective, with privileged access to the domestic sphere: cops, babysitters, landlords, architects, family friends …
A pronounced class consciousness is evident in many of these films, like Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake (1991): the monster figure (for the intimacy thriller invariably marries film noir and horror elements) is often a disgruntled, resentful member of the proletariat who seeks revenge on the professional class for some social wrong done to him or her.
In Fear, James Foley and screenwriter Christopher Crowe (who directed the fascinating Whispers in the Dark ) fully and vividly dramatise the ambivalence and ambiguity at the heart of the intimacy thriller. No matter how psychotic or evil David becomes (and the film moves relentlessly towards “erasing” him so that the status quo can prevail), it is still impossible not to feel some sympathy for him.
David consistently exposes, with biting accuracy, the malaise in the McCall family: the father’s overly-intense interest in his children, the mother’s willingness to stray, the daughter’s eagerness to walk on the wild side. On this level, Fear is a clear descendant of Alfred Hitchcock’s noir/family melodrama classic Shadow of a Doubt (1943), updated with a spectacular home-siege finale reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972).
Although dismissed by some reviewers (including me!) on its release as a sensationalist, hysterical, formulaic piece, Fear has improved with age. (Either that, or some critics just get smarter.) Foley is a minor master at wielding what critic Raymond Durgnat once described as the energy realism of contemporary American cinema: as in his feature debut Reckless (1984) – a lyrical teen movie that shares some key elements with Fear – the narrative accelerations, dramatic crescendos, and visceral combinations of image and music are particularly effective.
Foley, as he has often proved, can get the best out of his actors, too: Witherspoon and Wahlberg, in early roles, are more impressive here than was evident at the time. And that wonderful “Wild Horses” scene (mentioned at the end of my earlier review) is not only a highlight of 1990s cinema, but also an immortal ode to transgressive teen eroticism.
Postscript: Five years after rediscovering and re-evaluating Fear, Cristina Álvarez López and I used it as the basis, alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974), for this audiovisual essay (plus accompanying text, reprinted in the final chapter of my 2018 book Mysteries of Cinema) titled Angst/Fear, comparing and intermingling their respective fairground ride scenes.
© Adrian Martin August 1996 / January 2008