Basic fear is an evolutionary response that warns us animals of threatening stimuli; in short, fear is supposed to keep the mortality rate down. There are different types of fear, though. Fear is biological, but its more nefarious variant, hysteria, is social, a collective cumulation of fear that takes what are logical defense responses and turns them into illogical, dangerous behavior. The fear of being in a crowded space while millions of people around the world are dying of a contagious airborne disease is rational; the fear of not having enough toilet paper during a disease which has nothing to do with gastrointestinal distress is irrational.
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Collective fear and its individualized effects wrought by COVID-19 partly inspired filmmaker Deon Taylor to create Fear, an aptly titled (and gradually terrifying) meditation on the subject. It’s a cleverly constructed horror film, the cinematic manifestation of the full, actual quote from FDR: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Again, fear is not a problem in and of itself, but rather “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” and that’s exactly what Fear explores in expert and increasingly intense ways.
Fears Come to Life in This Actually Scary Horror Movie
Hidden Empire Film Group
Fear opens with unsettling imagery that brings to mind some of the early Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson music videos, or the opening titles of American Horror Story, setting an efficiently creepy tone. That atmosphere remains throughout the film, but it actually takes about 35 minutes to establish any actual horror in Fear. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it sets up the group dynamic and creates an attachment with some of the characters in this ensemble cast.
The film begins with Rom (Joseph Sikora) driving Bianca (Annie Ilonzeh) to a relatively isolated lodge to surprise her with a birthday celebration — and an even bigger surprise proposal. A group of close friends awaits them at the Strawberry Lodge — Serena (Ruby Modine), Russ (Terrence Jenkins), Benny (Andrew Bachelor), Lou (Tip “T.I.” Harris), Michael (Iddo Goldberg), Meg (Jessica Allain), and Kim (Tyler Abron). It may be two or three too many characters for a film with a 95-minute runtime, but the ensemble cast does allow for a larger exploration of different fears.
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Rom picked the Strawberry Lodge for multiple reasons. It’s a large, nice estate for a gathering and a proposal, but it also has complicated myths and horrific rumors surrounding its past, and Rom is an author researching a book about fear. Neither Bianca, a budding religious scholar, nor anyone else realizes this, and when the group drinks a nasty, possibly drug-laced wine at the end of the night, their fears catch up to them in the form of horrifying hallucinations — or possibly demonic, supernatural visions.
Deon Taylor’s Topical Themes in Fear
Hidden Empire Film Group
After the film’s extensive set-up, an effective sense of dread builds when the group, who are already paranoid about COVID-19, watch news broadcasts of an even more dangerous and contagious virus. They’re told to not even go outside, but begin to have suspicions about at least one of their own, who appears to be sick. Paranoia escalates into abrasive and violent behavior, disrupting the unity of the group; when they become separated, their innermost fears seem to externalize and become a reality for each of them.
The atmospheric gloom of Fear builds masterfully in one direction, as if the volume is slowly being turned up for an hour-and-a-half on a symphony of screams. There aren’t peaks and plateaus in Fear, but rather one constant trajectory toward terror which just grows and grows as the friends are torn apart by suspicion, distracted by hallucinations, and lured deeper into madness.
The idea of individualized fears being brought to life in deadly ways has been used a handful of times previously, most notably in the second season of Channel Zero and the aptly titled film Fear, Inc. It’s a great template for horror, because it’s conducive to so many variations — almost anything can be feared, and thus turned into horror. Fear plays with the idea in interesting ways, personalizing most characters’ greatest fears while also making them topically relevant. A Black man’s fear of wrongful arrest by the police, or an asthmatic woman’s fear of the very air we breathe being poisoned by viruses, all feel extremely contemporary and propel Fear toward its greater themes.
Overcoming Your Fear
Hidden Empire Film Group
Fear becomes relentless, gruesome, and surprising. The visualizations Taylor creates (and the ways in which cinematographer Christopher Duskin and Encore VFX realize them) are memorably haunting. The aural and visual textures of these hallucinations are great; distortion, lighting, sound design, visual effects, and good performances come together to create many actually scary moments. The editing from Martin Bernfeld and Peck Prior is simple but perfect, increasing the pace and occasionally tricking the viewer. On a technical level, Fear works really well as both a psychological horror film and a classic haunted house movie.
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Intellectually speaking, Fear is far more astute than most horror films, and reflects some very real issues of the past few years. Yes, it falls victim to some old horror tropes, but in some ways, they’re used in order to elucidate the film’s points. Fear can be a paradoxical thing. Hysteria is a collective response, but its consequences are most felt in isolation, and the worst suffering and bloodshed in this film occurs when the characters are alone with their own thoughts and anxieties. Ironically, it often takes a group of courageous, compassionate, and considerate people to break the spell, as opposed to the blind fear of masses. Fear is a controlling factor, and even when someone is alone, it can dictate the terms of their life. That’s why friends, lovers, family, and wise people are so important; we often need people outside our own head to point out the illogic of our fears.
Hidden Empire Film Group
In its own creepy way, Fear explores that exact paradox of how terror can be generated by groupthink, but how the spell can be broken by good, close people. The film is also surprisingly religious (which makes sense — the horror genre may be the last bastion of religiosity in mainstream Hollywood and media). While Fear certainly doesn’t posit that the only way one can conquer their fears is through belief in a higher power, it does provide a fascinating contrast between faith and fear. The former is about trust; the latter concerns suspicion. Faith, or even the minutiae of hope, can fight fear by locating something bigger than it, something more powerful than terror. In Fear, that may be God or love, and in life, it could be just about anything. A line is repeated in Fear — “Believing what you fear will bring to the victim what they are afraid of.” Ultimately, through a lot of grisly horror, Taylor’s film shows that there are greater things to believe in than fear, and that’s a message we all need to hear.
Fear is produced and distributed by Hidden Empire Film Group, and will be in theaters nationwide beginning Friday, January 27.