Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The concept of fear is a fascinating one indeed, varying drastically from person to person as to their ultimate fear. Taking fear as a construct and manifesting it into a tangible, dangerous entity is another story entirely. Co-writer/director Deon Taylor crafts a predictable film so filled with horror genre cliches that it is barely able to stand on solid ground without the crutch of them. Not to be confused with one of the greatest thrillers of all time, 1996’s Fear, this Fear provides a confounding, misguided commentary on the pandemic that media cannot seem to escape. In the same breath, its ridiculous charms and throwback vibes are difficult to deny. Imagine a bootleg version of 1999’s excellent House on Haunted Hill remake, throw in a motley collection of C-list actors, a plethora of kills, cheesy dialogue, and an obvious final girl… all of these combine to form the puzzling concoction that is 2023’s Fear.

Rom (Joseph Sikora) is a best-selling novelist on the hunt for material to make his newest a raging success. What better way to get inspired than to travel far out in the middle of nowhere to a beautiful, historic hotel? Rom hopes to finally pop the question to his longtime girlfriend, Bianca (Annie Ilonzeh), during her birthday weekend. He treats the whole thing as an elaborate surprise, forcing Bianca to wear a blindfold up until he reveals where they will be staying. To really add the icing on top, Rom invited their closest friends to join in on the celebration! Covid-tested and ready to mingle, these pals may soon discover that Strawberry Lodge may not be as picturesque and wholesome as it first appears…

An ominous greeting by the Strawberry Lodge’s resident caretaker ends in a polaroid snapped of the group. The woman claims anyone who visits is always memorialized by photograph, so that they “can never leave.” She also gifts them a fresh bottle of wine, and remarks that Bianca, who has a doctorate in religion, is a “beacon of light.” Around a campfire, the crew reveal their most personal fears as a means to not succumb to them. This mostly just serves as a method for the audience to become aquatinted with these cookie-cutter characters in a minute or less, boiling down their hollow personalities into just what they are afraid of.

An opening title sequence certainly evokes American Horror Story with its flashes of creepy imagery and depiction of “fear itself.” Funny enough, this becomes the first of many times that Fear will rip off other projects that have arguably done the same thing, and better. Originality is not the strong suit here; rather, when Fear is successful, it emulates movies we already know and love. Relying on familiarity works somewhat, but does not maintain itself throughout. After awhile, I began to checkmark the endless tropes as if referencing a cliche list in the process. Does every horror movie want to have a scenic upside down shot? Flashing lights, whispered evil voices, coughing up hairballs, blurred photo faces a la The Ring, and a scene lifted directly from the wacky universe of Jordan Peele—not a single frame of Fear feels new or original.

The biggest misstep is Fear’s gross, manipulative misunderstanding of Covid horror. By now, nearly three years after lockdown changed our lives forever, a script needs to be a bit better than lazily claiming a new variant has now gone airborne. At a certain point, the ridiculousness wears thin. Nevertheless, Fear’s final act also happens to be its most fun and ambitious. House on Haunted Hill mode has been firmly activated as the friends race against the clock to survive a night at the Strawberry Lodge. If only the entire affair had been as ridiculous/fun as its home stretch.

Face down your greatest Fear when this psychological horror flick hits theaters nationwide on Friday, January 27th.

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