It used to be easy for horror movies to put their characters in scary situations. All they had to do was make their protagonists take a wrong turn and end up somewhere with locals that didn’t like outsiders, and mayhem could ensue. If their car broke down, they’d have to run for their lives, and hope that someone somewhere would let them use their phone. Now, everyone’s got a mobile phone in their pockets, and satellite navigation systems in the car, and it’s much, much harder for filmmakers to plausibly isolate their characters, even in the deepest darkest backwoods.
So it’s impressive that In Fear manages to put its leads in a believably helpless situation in spite of it all. Tom (Iain De Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert), a young almost-couple who met a couple of weeks ago, are on their way to a music festival together. As a romantic surprise, Tom books a hotel room for their first night, but the hotel turns out to be a little off the beaten track, and despite using the car’s built-in GPS and checking the map Tom had printed off the hotel website, they soon find themselves driving in circles.
And, of course, they’re not alone. Someone’s out there in the darkness, and they’re not friendly. Before long, Tom and Lucy aren’t just looking for a bed for the night, they’re fighting for their lives. It’s real heart-in-mouth stuff; the film is only 85 minutes long, so there’s hardly any respite from the tension. Director Jeremy Lovering spends just enough time setting the scene and introducing the characters at the beginning for you to get strapped in, and then he ramps up the scares so much that there’s never an opportunity to stop the ride and get off.
The result is pretty frightening, though maybe “stressful” is a more accurate description. It’s anxiety-inducing. There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn with The Blair Witch Project, not just because of the basic plot elements of young people getting lost in the woods, but also because both films coax believably terrified performances from their actors by not giving them the full script, and not telling them what’s about to happen to them out in the dark.
Those of you who suffer from motion sickness will be glad to hear that this isn’t a found footage movie, though there is some shaky cam and a lot of tight, tight, tense close-ups on people’s faces. It’s almost entirely a two-hander, shot claustrophobically inside a car, and the actors do a good job of conveying their terror. There’s not a lot of violence or gore, but what there is is strikingly effective, and there’s at least one guaranteed shudder packed in.
The problem, though, is that the film goes too far. The story is so very slight that even 85 minutes is a little bit too long to sustain it. The first two-thirds are fantastic – taut, scary, and believable – but then the balance tips, and things start to get a little silly. It’s short and sharp enough that it’s almost forgivable, but not quite; it’s not entirely possible to quieten down the little voice in the back of your mind telling you the plot just unravelled in front of your face. The film is far more successful when it keeps information back, and lets you imagine the worst; when it tries to explain what the threat is and where it’s coming from, it leans toward daft.
So it’s not a masterpiece. But it is a very striking exercise in tension, and a pretty decent showcase for Lovering’s talents.
In Fear is out on the 15th November in UK cinemas.
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