Review: Deon Taylor’s pandemic thriller ‘Fear’ prioritizes style over scares
Deon Taylor is a fascinating figure, having forged his own path as a Black filmmaker in Hollywood, independently producing, and now distributing, his films. He also seems to be single-handedly keeping the mid-budget 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 the pandemic head-on, utilizing 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. 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’ve got the 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. Nope, nothing to worry about at all.
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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, because that’s an important distinction.
“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. The overwrought screenplay, however, 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 the audience has never been privy to. 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. 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. But set against a global pandemic, the film proves the opposite — in moderation, fear can be a good thing.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for bloody violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 27 in general release
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