Fear (1996)

James Foley has an interesting IMDB resume, with films from RecklessAt Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross to Who’s That Girl (he also directed Madonna’s videos for “Live to Tell”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, and “True Blue”), Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. As I’ve always said, there’s a fine line between arthouse and grindhouse. Fear is a movie that despite its bigger budget pedigree and future A-list stars has one foot surely planted in the grime of exploitation. And that’s why I kinda love it.

Nicole Walker (Reese Witherspoon) is sixteen and living in the midst of a turbulent blended family between her father (William Petersen) and new mother (Amy Brenneman). In my strange head, I’ve shipped that Petersen is really his character from Manhunter, starting over again in life as anything but a cop.

That said — Nicole is a wannabe bad girl, sneaking into bars with real bad girl Margo (Alyssa Milano)  when she meets David McCall (Mark Wahlberg). He’s gorgeous and charming and says all the right things. But her dad hates him immediately. There’s an undercurrent of incest in this film — it’s never shoved in your face, but there are hints of it, that Nicole’s father is perfect a bit too protective, a bit too defensive of her when his wife says she looks like a slut.

Keep in mind, every single time you hear The Sundays’ cover of “Wild Horses,” you’re getting a sex scene, including one where David’s hand finds its way between Nicole’s thighs on a rollercoaster. Oh Fear — you understand the movie that you ought to be so well.

Soon, David shows his true nature, keeping Nicole out too late and assaulting one of her friends when he thinks the guy is trying to get with his girl. He even gives Nicole a black eye which, oddly, brings her together with her stepmother, which is a troubling narrative when you start to think about it too much.

Of course, she takes him back and even when her parents demand that she not have visitors when they leave town, she gives him the code to their house so they can make love. Daddy, however, can’t trust the guy — even if the stepmother does, allowing him to help with her gardening — and discovers that his background is full of lies.

Everything has to fall apart. Nicole watches Margo smoke crack at a party and sees David take her off to a bedroom for sex. In my favorite scene in the film, Margo tells Nicole’s little brother that she can’t wait until he grows up so she can ravage him — he’s eight — before the bomb gets dropped that Nicole knows she had sex with her man.

David becomes obsessed with Nicole, tattooing his own chest with the words NICOLE 4 EVA in a scene that should be watched over and over again. He also goes off, choking out Margo, killing that gentleman who dared to hug Nicole and cornering her in a mall bathroom. Then he goes further, destroying her dad’s Mustang with the graffiti “Now I’ve popped both your cherries!”Her dad replies by breaking into David’s house, where he finds a shrine to his daughter.

Once David discovers that dad has been to his house, he responds in the only language he knows: abject violence, turning this movie into a teenage Last House on the Left. It starts with the beloved family dog, Kaiser, being beheaded and only gets worse from there. Sure, things turn out fine, but wow, getting there will necessitate years of therapy for everyone.

Universal Pictures is currently working on a re-imagined version of this film with more of a female perspective. Here’s hoping it isn’t afraid to go too far, with a maniacal Donnie Wahlberg screaming “Let me in the fucking house!” Seriously, he was never better than he is in this movie, just a vision of complete young love gone wrong.

You can watch this for free on Tubi or on Shudder.

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