(Rockne S. O’Bannon, USA, 1990)


A fascinating cycle of contemporary thrillers has created a veritable Female Gothic genre, in which themes of urban dread, patriarchal violence and post-feminist stepping-out combine potently and ambiguously. This genre is the subject of a chapter in my book Mysteries of Cinema (2018/2020).


The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the above-ground success of the cycle but, during this genre’s 1990s heyday, VHS alone offered some of its most unsettling variations. Rockne O’Bannon’s Fear is among the films (alongside Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack [1989] and Tim Hunter’s Paint It Black [1989]) that finally surfaced almost two years after the collapse of the ambitious USA production company Vestron.


O’Bannon himself was at the transition point between scripting the intriguing Alien Nation (1988) and several decades of writing-producing numerous sci-fi/fantasy/horror/thriller TV series. His only other subsequent stab at direction was the telemovie Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare (1995).


Fear (not to be confused with a splendid 1996 intimacy-thriller of the same title) gives a literal take on the theme of a serial killer invading a woman’s mind. Cayce (Ally Sheedy, in fine, fidgety form) is a psychic on the hunt, but this Shadow Man (Pruitt Taylor Vince), as he is known, is an even better one – he projects his grisly murders into her head and feeds off her terror (“He likes me, I give great fear”).


As usual in such stories, there are complex symbolic links suggested between the heroine’s family history, her career, her dread and desire, and the nice or bad guys in her life. This is always intriguing terrain in popular cinema, no matter how incoherent or muddled it sometimes gets.


There’s also a notable final showdown that combines a The Lady from Shanghai (1948) Hall of Mirrors “fear chamber” with a Strangers on a Train (1951) struggle on a berserk fairground ride. Not bad!

© Adrian Martin November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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