New York City detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) teams up with Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) to investigate five bizarre deaths. Before long they discover that all the victims died exactly 48 hours after visiting the Web site feardotcom.com. The site itself looks amateurish with rapid-fire images of a strange doorway screaming faces torture tools and indiscernible grainy objects. Users log on to watch a twisted doctor perform autopsies on people--while they're still alive torturing his victims until they beg to be killed. The voyeurs must then interact with a mysterious woman who asks things like "Do you want to hurt me?" She challenges users to find her within two days--or die. Those who don't find her end up suffering whatever gruesome fate they fear most and--this is the best bit--it's brought on by some sort of evil force generated through the computer. Of course curiosity gets the better of them and Mike and Terry log on to the site only to find themselves embroiled in a supernatural violent fight for their lives. If this explanation made sense that's more than we can say for the plot of feardotcom.
Dorff is well cast as Mike Reilly a brash young city police detective whose curious nature gets him into trouble. But the character is too simplistic and underdeveloped to give Dorff much to do. Although we get a little more insight into McElhone's character Terry (we know she has a cat name Benny for example) there isn't much to like or dislike about her. Dorff and McElhone's characters strike up a sort of friendship as the film progresses but there isn't much chemistry between the actors. A couple of the creepier roles in the film are much more entertaining to watch especially Stephen Rea and Michael Sarrazin. Rea plays Alistair Pratt the twisted doctor whose torture victims provide feardotcom.com's "entertainment " while Sarrazin plays Frank Sykes a drunk and washed-up author. It's a shame these two didn't have more screen time.
Director William Malone explains in the production notes for the film that feardotcom offers both a scientific and spiritual explanation for what happens in the film and that it is ultimately up to moviegoers to decide which school of thought they subscribe to. But the film's storyline is so convoluted and contradictory that it's difficult to figure out what question the film is asking let alone find the answer. Even if nothing about the story--or the philosophical questions it purports to ask--makes sense the intense look of the film is enough to keep you watching. Malone bathes the film in murky blue tones and sunlight never even trickles in. Offices are dimly lit and apartments are always dank and dilapidated. It rains day and night. The weird flashes of images presented in this setting are graphic and disturbing making feardotcom a film for the strong of heart--and stomach.
Julie Walters shines as Bernie McPhelimy a working-class mother of four who is sick to death of living on the front lines. In curlers and a housecoat she chews out a gunman shooting from her welcome mat as if he were a naughty child. But it isn't until her best friend is shot dead while looking after one of Bernie's kids that she turns from Valium to activism. Daring to criticize the IRA as well as the British army Bernie becomes the town pariah though her gumption turns her into an unlikely celebrity. Ostracized and bullied by their friends her kids -- especially adolescent Ann who just wants to keep her new boyfriend -- resent her and suspect all this fame is going to her head.
In her best film role since "Educating Rita " Julie Walters shows she still has a surplus of piss and vinegar. Her Bernie also displays a sardonic (if exhausted) wit and an all-too-human ego as her fame spreads. While Ciaran Hinds is effective as the ulcer-addled apprehensive husband and Nuala O'Neill gives an appropriately mopey angst-ridden performance as Ann vibrant supporting performances by the townspeople really bring soul and humor to this film.
Quite different from his last film the glossy fluffy "Notting Hill " Rodger Michell's "Titanic Town" is a small indie with many fine miniature moments such as Bernie's preoccupation with the dust bunnies under the bed as British soldiers forcibly search her home. With a spate of IRA films preceding it Michell's is the only one to really show "The Troubles" through a mother's eyes.