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Movie Review: Overwrought pandemic film ‘Fear’ fails to scare

Jan. 25, 2023 Updated Thu., Jan. 26, 2023 at 2:31 p.m.

By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Deon Taylor is a fascinating figure, having forged his own path as a Black filmmaker in Hollywood, independently producing, and now distributing, his films, and he seems to be the only person single-handedly keeping the midbudget adult thriller alive (see: “The Intruder,” “Black and Blue,” “Traffik”).

He is rigorously focused on the craft of filmmaking, but he’s also obsessed with serving a multicultural audience that goes largely underserved by certain swaths of the industry. A global pandemic was certainly not going to derail his mission, and in his latest film, the horror flick “Fear,” Taylor takes on the pandemic head-on, using our collective anxieties as the grist for his storytelling mill.

“Fear” is a COVID movie, and a contagion film, and a haunted house story rolled into 100 feverishly stylized minutes. The film would be a tortured metaphor for the ways in which we all allow fear to rule our lives, and how we manifest what we focus on, for better or for worse, but it’s not so much a metaphor as it is plainly and repeatedly stated throughout.

Joseph Sikora stars as horror novelist Rom, who takes his girlfriend Bianca (Annie Ilonzeh) on a weekend getaway in Northern California as a reprieve from the pandemic lockdown. They arrive at the rustic Strawberry Lodge, and as he’s about to propose, he blanches and falters, instead revealing that he’s invited their group of friends to celebrate Bianca’s birthday. They have the historical lodge to themselves for the weekend, and seriously, don’t worry about the incredibly creepy innkeeper who leaves them a terrible bottle of wine, or the detailed stories that Rom tells about the miners who tortured and killed Indigenous women thought to be witches. Nothing to worry about at all.

As the friends confess their phobias around the campfire as a means of catharsis, the story unfolds every which way. There’s the fear of contagion and paranoia that sets in, especially after a news report about a new variant, and as Lou (rapper T.I.) becomes increasingly ill. There’s the “Brujas of Fear” taking hold of their minds, as it becomes clear that Rom combined his book research with his weekend getaway. But are these friends letting their own fear infect each other, or is it the brujas?

“Fear” relies on craft for creating atmosphere and tension – the sickly greenish handheld cinematography by Christopher Duskin, the pounding score by Geoff Zanelli and the impeccable sound design. But the script, by Taylor and John Ferry, proves that it is possible to have too many ideas for just one film. Taylor’s other outings, like “The Intruder” and “Black and Blue,” were sleeker and more streamlined high-concept projects; in “Fear” it feels like he’s throwing everything at the wall – thematically and aesthetically – not to see if it sticks, but because he so enthusiastically wants to do it all. But the overwrought screenplay doesn’t get deep enough with the characters, or allow anything to breathe.

Deadliest of all, “Fear” is just not scary. The jump scares don’t land, the fears themselves are all a bit silly, and it feels like Taylor is holding back for the majority of the run time. An hour in, the setup is still going on, as Rom rummages through old photographs, putting together connections to which the audience has never been privy. We’re both ahead of these characters, who are a little too dumb to root for (with the exception of Bianca, an excellent “final girl”), and playing catch-up at the same time, without being clued in to their motivations at all. It doesn’t start ripping until the last few minutes, when the film should have been unleashed the entire time.

Ultimately, Taylor’s goal with “Fear” is to argue that we shouldn’t let fear rule our lives, but he doesn’t so much as show why that is rather than just repeat it. Set against a global pandemic, the film proves its opposite argument, that, in moderation, fear, in fact, can be a good thing.

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