Thursday, March 6, 2014

Wrong Turn: Less is more in moody "In Fear" until more becomes less

In Fear (2014)
85 min., rated R.

"In Fear" is a classic case of an on-the-road couple getting lost. For a horror film, it could have just hit all the humdrum beats—guy refuses to ask for directions, guy leaves girl alone in the car, girl hears scratching on the side of the car—but British television director Jeremy Lovering proves to be compact and spare in the storytelling of his feature debut and more interested in a gradual build-up of anxiety than instant scares. Lovering created the story and Jon Croker consulted the story, but the actors were kept on their feet, having been given characters and a bare setup without knowing where the script was going to take them. That gamble proves to make the trip all the more authentic and scary, as we're right there alongside the actors.

Tom (Iain De Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) are on the road to a music festival somewhere in Ireland. After they both leave a pub, he wants to be romantic and celebrate their two-week anniversary in a hotel room in Emerald Isle. Unbeknownst to Lucy, Tom has already arranged someone to show them the way. Once the couple thinks they've made it, they get lost in a maze and keep coming back to a cabin with a "Keep Out" sign at the gate. When they briefly stop, Tom goes to the bathroom in the woods, while Lucy looks through her bags in the backseat. She feels a slight tug on her hair, but it's not Tom. Soon enough, as they both have exited the vehicle, the car alarm then blares and they find the car keys on the ground nearby. Once night falls, they're really screwed and could be the prey of someone's sick joke. To top it off, their fuel tank is running close to empty after driving around in circles. Did something happen in the pub to provoke someone to do this? Is there a supernatural force at work here? Or is their fear just part of their imagination running wild?

Building on the primal power of apprehension and leaving much to the imagination, especially in the first half, "In Fear" forces the viewer to not only be scared for Tom and Lucy, but we become scared ourselves. The film is cleanly shot with inventive angles in the close quarters of one car, especially those of Lucy's eyes, and the narrow, winding backroads are foreboding during the daytime and even more so at night as Tom's car travels faster than one should down a path to nowhere. For a film like this to work, there should be characters we grow to like and care about. We know about as much as they know about each other, and that's the point. Being expressively played by Englert (2013's "Beautiful Creatures"), Lucy definitely falls into the criteria of an audience surrogate. On the other hand, Tom is evidently allergic to common sense and more infuriating in his actions, leaving Lucy in the car to go pee in the woods (when peeing right by the car would have sufficed) and then letting his masculinity take over. 

A minimalist film, especially a horror film that mostly takes place in a car and along the same roads, could have verged on repetitive. Thankfully, director Lovering keeps interest high, evoking several goosebumps and a haunting mood through David Katznelson's lensing and a chillingly edgy score by Roly Porter and David Pemberton, and knows that the unknown can be a lot scarier than a masked killer in the woods or a monster under the bed. Less is usually more, and for an effective, genuinely frightening hour or so, that is Lovering's approach. He plays with our expectations, as a figure with a white mask looming in the dark could just be a scarecrow or a figment of Lucy's imagination. What happens later is something of a letdown, and although it's half-uncompromising, it seems a little too severe without being fleshed out enough. It's hard to shake how ultimately unsatisfying the pesky destination is, but the white-knuckle getting-there is what's worth the energy in "In Fear."

Grade: B - 

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