Amidst the unease of the coronavirus pandemic, a celebratory gateway for a group of friends takes a sinister turn when their haunted vacation home incites oppressive paranoia in Fear.
Conjuring startling scares is just one of writer, director, and producer Deon Taylor's many versatile talents. I've always been a fan of Taylor and believe he is an unfairly overlooked voice in the industry. Taylor has gradually built a well-rounded repertoire of genre features that compel while drawing thoughtful reflections on our zeitgeist. Whether it's culturally relevant comedies like Meet the Black or the sleek thrills of Fatale and The Intruder, Taylor is well-versed in providing crowdpleasing endeavors.
As one of the first productions following COVID-19's stateside onset, Fear finds Taylor trying to draw indelible frights from our exasperated post-coronavirus mental and emotional states. It's a promising concept to explore on paper, yet Fear ultimately disconnects in a flatlining horror showcase.
Filming a project during 2020's rigid COVID restrictions is difficult enough, let alone completing that effort in a truncated 17-day window. While Taylor accomplishes an admirable filmmaking feat with Fear, his cinematic byproduct struggles to excel on any fundamental level.
Calling Fear a horror movie is a generous label to place upon the film. Taylor and co-screenwriter John Ferry utilize a few familiar tenants of the genre, such as an eerie haunted house setting and a rogue's gallery ensemble beset by lingering inner turmoils. Still, the slapdash script rarely engages with its horror pursuits.
The screenplay haphazardly constructs characters without textured dimensions, showcasing an ensemble of flat personalities that never truly pop onscreen. Some actors can skillfully personify the makeshift roles (Terrence Jenkins and Andrew Bachelor exude charisma), although the material's shortcomings significantly buoy others (lead Joseph Sikora is stuck in a lifeless role as a mythology-obsessed author).
Taylor and Ferry instead focus on dumping buckets of empty exposition on viewers that never ignites interest. The flat characters and even flatter world-building end up feeling like a collage of horror tropes borrowed from Fear's far superior contemporaries.
Thematically, one can see how Fear could touch upon commonplace insular struggles exasperated throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, any worthwhile meditation is inevitably drowned out within a woefully didactic screenplay. Simply referencing COVID-19 or other societal dynamics does not equate to drawing actual reflections on those hot-button issues. If anything, the film's COVID-based connotations preach an ill-advised downplaying of the virus's impact.
In place of meaningful sentiments, much of Fear aimlessly meanders throughout its 100-minute runtime without establishing a source for palpable tensions. Where most horror features would gravitate toward establishing a methodical build-up, Fear prefers running in place for two-thirds of its runtime before lazily emptying its bag of horror setpieces.
Taylor utilizes his makeshift budget capably enough to try and elevate the proceedings behind the camera. His direction features an endless gamut of dingy hallways, flickering lights, and claustrophobically framed moments to unnerve viewers. There are blips of visceral frights buried within Fear, but these fearful glimmers lack the atmosphere or bite to leave a lasting impression. Fear additionally features a rough-around-the-edges technical polish that empathizes some of its lingering issues (the end credits title card references the movie's previous title, Don't Fear).
Some of Taylor's natural strengths still shine through Fear's shortcomings. Taylor is skilled at cultivating genuine camaraderie between characters, injecting enough clever comedic gags and affectionate barbs to add a comforting sense of levity to the proceedings. He also knows how to draw an undeniably engaging cinematic yarn. Even as much of Fear falters, there's still some shlocky amusement embedded in its embrace of midnight movie norms.
Fear provokes uninspired results from its flat execution of a promising-enough horror concept. Still, I applaud Taylor for taking genuine risks as a filmmaker and remain intrigued to see where he goes next from here.
Fear is now playing in theaters.