Comedy and horror are two genres that survive on visceral, gut-busting reactions from audiences (quite literally, sometimes). They also have long complemented each other like London and werewolves. Yet, whether the intention is to scare people in a dark room or tickle them silly, neither is an easy feat, which Fear, Inc. can testify to from experience. Indeed, the new midnight selection horror film seems tailor-made for genre junkies in search for a film aware of all the in-jokes… except for how to make them particularly clever.
To Fear, Inc.’s credit, the premise is plenty amusing and creates the exact kind of meta-nightmare most horror fans would love to find themselves trapped within. One such fanatic bloke is Lucas Neff’s Joe Foster, the type of man-child bro who is meant to be immediately appealing with his man-bun hair and slacker spirit (instead of looking for a job he spends his days lounging around his girlfriend’s pool and playing beer pong by himself). Neff has an obviously affable energy and imbues Joe with a childlike glee for all things horror, albeit the character’s scripted ne’er do well attitude frequently surpasses the realm of cute and drives headlong into grating.
It’s a wonder then that his very career-oriented girlfriend Lindsey (Caitlin Stasey) keeps him around, but at the very least he knows how to have a good time. Thus after a strip-mall’s failed haunted house the night before Halloween proves to be about as scary as the last PG-13 found footage movie you had to suffer through, Joe’s vocal complaints attract the attention of a creeper in a trench coat (Patrick Renna). The ominous stranger hands Joe and Lindsey his card for “Fear, Inc.” Run by a group of shady, not necessarily law-abiding horror enthusiasts, Fear, Inc. promises to make your nightmares come true by trapping you inside your favorite chiller spectacles.
Hence even after visiting best pal Ben (Chris Marquette) and his wife (Stephanie Drake) warn of hearing that “Fear, Inc.” is dangerous, Joe still makes the decision to call the cryptic organization. By Halloween night, Joe and company find themselves subject to a home invasion from masked fiends who are recreating iconic moments from Scream, Friday the 13th, and Saw—often with Joe helpfully calling out the meta-references. However, reality begins to blur, and it becomes an open question whether this is real or pretend, and if the blood coming out of neighbors and friends is corn syrup or something far, far worse.
The self-aware set-up of not only a horror-comedy where the characters have seen it all before, but one where they also have seen these exact scenes play out is a sound one. And revisiting the plot behind David Fincher’s The Game (which is also name-checked here) in something so unapologetically genre is also a fun idea. However, the punch-line never lands, because there really isn’t one to be found.
Existing mostly as an exercise in reference humor, Joe shouts out every horror movie that he is in without ever actually making good use of the parallels. By recycling familiar and even now cliché horror tropes—right down to a prologue with a doomed victim played by a relatively big name (in this case Abigail Breslin)—the movie fundamentally situations itself to not be perceived as genuinely scary or suspenseful, and the concocted humor from first time feature director Vincent Masciale and screenwriter Luke Barnett is content on simply asking audiences, “Do you remember this?”
The other shrewd angle being played out in Fear, Inc. involves the mental game of whether this is all really happening, but it is also equally undermined by the fact that, despite Neff’s best efforts, the character of Joe Foster is written to be totally and irredeemably obnoxious—a grown man who makes every worst possible decision and who seems wholly oblivious to the consequences of his actions, even as they might be resulting in the bloodletting around him.
Robbing audiences of a protagonist they want to see either survive or at least find reclamation, Fear, Inc. ultimately becomes one number that is probably not worth dialing. The service it promises certainly seems intriguing for the right kind of genre fan, and will probably find that exact kind of audience on VOD one day, but it’s unlikely to ever deliver what many are expecting.