In Fear employs the tropes of classic horror in a realist milieu and expects that to work. It doesn’t, says MacDara Conroy
In Fear is a terrible film, and you should not go see it. Certainly you shouldn’t pay money to see it, but I’d advise against even spending the 90 minutes of your life required to watch it, for you will immediately want them back, with interest. There. Review done.
But no, you probably want details, and reasons, and other things that’ll make me have to relive that dreadful afternoon screening. Fine, have it your way. And before you bring it up: no, I don’t think I’m being too harsh on a movie that was clearly made on a micro-budget, with a speaking cast of just three. Sure it’s an achievement to get any film made in this climate, especially a full-length movie, let alone the difficulties in securing theatrical release. But I can only think of what quality flicks may have missed their one chance at deserved exposure so that this rubbish could clog up the cinema schedules.
Anyway. Jeremy Lovering’s debut feature starts with a phone message: Tom (Iain De Caestecker, lately of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD) invites Lucy (Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion) to a music festival somewhere in Ireland, though they only met in a club days before. On the drive to the campsite, where her friends are already staying, Tom surprises Lucy with plans to spend the night at a country hotel – much to her chagrin, though she quickly relents to his pouting. They stop off at a pub, where Lucy reads some portentous graffiti on the loo cubicle wall while Tom gets into trouble with the regulars; we don’t see what. Back in the car, Tom and Lucy follow a Land Rover that’s been arranged to lead them to the hotel, and the next ominous sign looms: their guide speeds off without a word, leaving them at a chained-up farm gate.
Most people would get the heebie-jeebies right then, or at the very least look up the place on TripAdvisor. But Tom and Lucy blunder on down the desolate road into the woods, following signs that send the duo in circles to the point where they can’t retrace their path – way past the point where any real person would have stopped, said ‘feck this’ and returned to safety. Lucy finally twigs something’s going on as the dreary autumn light fades, but Tom acts oblivious, his actions turning increasingly dickish (think Anakin and Amidala in the Star Wars prequels – exactly). More preposterous behaviour follows as the pair are stalked and assailed by a faceless figure in the dark, and their nightmare evening take a turn when they’re joined by Max (Allen Leech, that Branson fella off Downton Abbey), a stranger sporting a nasty head wound and an explanation for their sorry predicament.
By this point I was already writhing in my seat, reaching on instinct for a remote to change the channel to something else, even an ad break – anything to get away from this excruciating experience with these stupid, stupid people. Where do I even begin? There’s the story, which grafts on ideas from here and there – shades of The Hitcher, the Saw movies, The Blair Witch Project, The Silence of the Lambs (your own list may differ) – but, like The Last Exorcism Part II earlier this year, shows no real understanding of how those elements help the films they’re ripped from work they way they do. What we get, then, is a plot contrived so cackhandedly that any potential subtle touches might as well be by accident than design. (Here’s one: it’s set in Ireland – they say Ireland, not Northern Ireland – so why are all the car reg plates British? A comment on Ireland’s tumultuous relationship with a former colonial oppressor? Or simply lack of attention to detail? My money’s on the latter.) And when everything comes to a head in the final act, the script falls back on ambiguity – the fear of the unknown – yet it’s painfully obvious that’s less a deliberate creative choice than the result of not having a clue how to craft a proper finish.
But In Fear‘s worst crime is employing the tropes of classic horror in a realist milieu and expecting it to work. It doesn’t. At all. When people do stupid things in horror movies, like walking alone in the woods or going down into the cellar, we suspend disbelief and go along with the ride because that’s the whole point. We expect these things to happen, because we crave the pay-off, whether it’s the jump scare or the chase or the villain’s gory attack (or final comeuppance). Realism is the opposite; we expect the characters on screen to behave like real people would, because that’s the whole point. And when they do stupid things that no one would ever do in real life, it’s impossible to empathise.
In Fear doesn’t give us real people, only real-seeming cardboard cutouts with nothing to invest in. And it’s hard to blame the performances of the leads, since they have so little to work with. Apart from Max, the mysterious stranger thrown in to stir up suspicion, all we have are Tom, the complete and utter tool whose behaviour only multiplies in its toolishness, and Lucy, whose greatest virtue is that she isn’t Tom. They’re not heroes to rally behind in the face of adversity; they’re fucking idiots who deserve to die right now so the film can end and I can go home, thanks. But no, In Fear is determined to drag out this idiocy for the full hour-and-a-half, without even as much as the big pay-off at the end.
Don’t blame the shoestring budget: it’s actually shot fairly well, and certainly looks the part, with smart lighting and compositional choices that build a heavy atmosphere (or would, if the story was there to support it). Lack of resources have never precluded the ability to craft good cinema; you just need to recognise the limitations and adjust your approach accordingly. Ben Wheatley gets it: his austere Kill List strikes the right balance between kitchen-sink realism and existential horror, and its ambiguities only add to its effect, while A Field In England is all about characters-as-symbols in a situation that resembles reality but ultimately transcends it. Veteran TV director Jeremy Lovering (working from his own screenplay here) is doubtless under the influence of Wheatley’s oeuvre, but he Just. Doesn’t. Get it.