OCTOBER 19, 2016
As I've said before, I don't like to know too much about a movie before I see it, especially at a festival, but I took it to a new extreme last night for Fear, Inc. - I didn't even know what the movie was CALLED until I saw a notice inside the theater (not the lobby, the theater itself, where we sit) telling us our reactions would be filmed. It's Screamfest time, after all, and since I knew I couldn't go on Thursday (horror trivia) I just made my way there on Wednesday without even looking at the schedule. For all I knew it could have been a revival screening of Paul Haggis' Crash for some goddamn reason. Luckily, it wasn't - and it turned out to be a movie that spoke to a number of my sensibilities, which would be like agreeing to a blind date and it turns out to be (name your actor/actress crush).
Basically it's the horror movie version of The Game, the David Fincher thriller from the '90s that doesn't get as much love as his other efforts from the era (until Zodiac it was pretty much my favorite of his films, actually - it took me a while to really warm up to the filmmaker). Our hero is bored with standard haunted attractions and is complaining about them when he is approached by someone working for the title company, who promises a true terror experience catered to them. As with The Game, he is "rejected" when he calls, but of course that's just to throw him off, and because (as we've learned since) he is a major horror movie fan, his experience is catered around his passion, and thus he's impressed with how they reference Scream and Friday the 13th in their attempts to terrify him. But is it really all a game? Are people really dying?
That's where the film primarily differs from The Game, as these folks don't like wipe out your bank account or whatever - they kill your friends and seemingly try to kill you as well. But it still apes that film in that you have to wonder what's real and what's being staged, and I don't think the filmmakers would mind me making the comparison, since the characters actually directly mention Fincher's film as a point of reference to explain what's going on. And that brings me to one of the two things about the movie that bugged me - they spell out too many of the references, which seems unnecessary in a film aimed directly at horror fans. Some are fine, even hilarious (there's one involving a particular Scream character's wardrobe that had me howling), but too many others are awkward and obvious, like when our hero finds his friend tied up to a death trap and says something about Jigsaw - and then their tormentor ALSO mentions the films directly. It was an obvious reference from the visual alone, making even the first clarification unneeded - having a second one moments later is overkill, and groan-worthy.
The other thing that irked me a bit is that there's one switcheroo too many. Perhaps because they reference The Game directly they felt they couldn't get away with a similar single "it was all a game!" reveal, so we have a couple of them, so the main character thinks it's a game, then real, then a game again, then real, then... you get the idea. I won't provide the exact count so as not to spoil anything (don't worry, this back and forth-ing starts rather quickly), but I couldn't help but wish they had stripped the film of at least one switch-up and just used that time elsewhere - perhaps by adding another character into the mix or something. I wouldn't call it a crippling issue, but when you have a character not once but twice re-enter the narrative saying something like "We got you!", it starts to feel padded (there is also an unnecessary prologue showing one of the game's other "victims", adding another 10 minutes to the runtime).
To be fair, this is tied into one of the film's STRENGTHS, which is that they never cheat, and each time you find out it's real (or a game), you can mentally run down the list of things that happened and see that it checks out. The characters race along from one scenario to the next (albeit mostly in their gorgeous LA home), so stopping to check a pulse or whatever isn't ever in the cards, and naturally to us in the audience who knows that none of these people are really dead (several of them were in the audience, in fact), if we believed what we saw on-screen, faked by professional makeup artists and performed by actors, there's no reason to think that the characters in the movie couldn't be fooled either, especially when in a stressful situation. And the "how far does this go?" setup aids some standard scenes, like when the heroes are pulled over when they have something incriminating in the car with them. It's the sort of scene you've seen a million times, but with the added bonus that you don't know if the cop is part of the game or a legit officer (and if he is, will the game people intrude to keep their plans in motion?). The script gets a lot of mileage out of that uncertainty, and despite the lag and repetition that settles in around the hour mark, it at least keeps you guessing about everything's true nature until the very end.
But the film's primary strength is that it's legitimately funny, and the characters are likable. At first glance you might worry you're getting the loser slacker hero and his bitchy girlfriend, but they quickly prove to be much different than that; he's definitely a bit spacey but he's loyal to his friends and we find out why he's a bit aloof, giving him some humanity and unexpected sympathy (for the record, his girlfriend won me over simply by making a pretty tasteless/amazing Natalie Wood joke via Christopher Walken impression). Chris Marquette and Stephanie Drake as their best friends are also charming, and have a valid excuse for not wanting to take part in the shenanigans (they have children, a relatively rare bit of business for this kind of supporting character). However, my favorite of the lot was Richard Riehle, the great character actor who is used perfectly as a nosy neighbor/former actor, which is a throwaway line early on that is important to remember when he is roped up into the game. As for the laughs, some are derived from movie references, but most are character driven ("You guys are GOOD ACTORS!") and it never becomes a spoofy sort of thing. Like Scream, it's comedic without being a comedy, which I think is the key to its strength - they're never obligated to be funny, allowing them to go full scary/suspenseful when they should, something Scary Movie and its ilk can never pull off.
Interestingly, just two weeks ago I indulged in something like this, Darren Bousman's The Tension Experience, which has a real world game you can take part in, but I just opted for the two hour, one-time experience. If you want you can have them do ARG-style things, where they'll call you at odd hours, have you go to random locations, etc. - but even the regular experience promises to rattle those who, like me, sleepwalk their way through haunted attractions at the likes of Universal Hollywood. Each time you go through is different, and there are something like 200 actors taking part to ensure everyone's experience is unique. It is, in other words, aimed at people like this movie's hero, who want to get those thrills that come naturally to his friends, and like the movie there are times during the experience (at least, my particular version of it) where you have to wonder if that person is really part of your group or someone that's part of their game. It's a new sort of immersive experience that is becoming more popular (at least in NY and LA), and thus Fear, Inc. has been timed perfectly to capitalize on it. By name-checking the film's two major influences (The Game and Scream) you're allowed to buy into their reality because, hey, those are movies we saw/liked too, and that's part of what makes it work so well.
The film hits VOD this week, which is not a surprise but still a bummer - it's a crowd-pleaser type that would benefit from big screen showings. Alas, that's just how it's gonna be from now on; we will get the oddball exception like The Witch, but every other horror movie that isn't from the likes of Screen Gems or Blumhouse you can expect to be watching in your own home on "release" day. It's a sad state of affairs; there are only two horror movies coming out in wide theatrical release this month - and one's a fucking Madea movie (the other is from Blumhouse, of course). It wasn't that long ago that a movie like this would definitely get a theatrical exhibition (maybe not 2,000 screens, but it wouldn't be relegated to only NY and LA, either), and I can't help but wonder if movies like Hatchet and Wrong Turn would suffer the same fate if they were being released today. Much like the hero of the movie, people get tired of the same old and want something different - but they also want to share that experience with others, and that's not a guarantee when your only option is watching it at home. But at least it's a festival movie that won't disappear, so take the good with the bad I guess.
What say you?
P.S. despite Freddy and Jason references (the two male leads even dress as them for their Halloween party), there isn't a meta joke about Marquette, who was in Freddy vs. Jason - and for that I thank the filmmakers.