One of the stranger films of the mid-90s, Fear unfolds at a unique juncture between the erotic thriller, which was on the wane by this point, and the teen horror genre, which was on the rise. It also marks the first major film roles for Reese Witherspoon, who plays sixteen-year old Nicole Walker, and Mark Wahlberg, who plays her boyfriend David McCall. Nicole has just moved to live with her father Steven, played by William Peterson, and his new famly, in Seattle, when she meets David at a local coffee house. While David seems nice at first, his behavior quickly becomes erratic, although it takes a while for Nicole to see what’s apparent to Steven from the very start – that David is possessive, obsessive and possibly psychopathic.
Most of the film plays out against two distinct spaces that are associated wth Steven and David’s different claims on Nicole, who quickly becomes a mere pawn in their power play with each other. Steven, who is enormously wealthy, lives on a house that he designed on Puget Sound, replete with expansive views of the water, and a private security box to monitor who comes in and out. Clearly, Steven has a strong command of physical space, but he also aspires to command virtual space through his architectural practice. We first learn he’s an architect when we see him desiging a new structure on his computer screen, and the centerpiece of his own residence is a security system that allows him to surveil Nicole as she comes and goes.
This situates Fear in a swathe of 90s films that dovetailed concerns about paternal authority with anxieties about the potentially emasculating effects of digital technology. The idea that technology might challenge the father’s control over hearth and home is nothing new – the television was seen as a rival to paternal omniscience from the moment it was invented, culminating with films like Poltergeist and Times Square in the 1980s. However, the rise of digital technology, and virtual reality, created an especially acute version of this anxiety, partly because paternal authority was always a form of virtual reality in itself – a fantasy of total omniscience that could never hold its own against the rise of a new digital surveillance.
Seattle was often used as a backdrop for this anxiety in the 90s, most notably in Barry Levinson’s Disclosure, released two years before, in which a businessman played by Michael Douglas could only ward off a false sexual assault suit by creating an entirely new virtual reality. Perhaps that’s because Seattle had such a unique subcultural scene, which forms the second main space in Fear. Nicole first sees Nick in a coffee house at the epicentre of the Seattle underground, and first properly meets him when her father abruptly cancels a James Taylor concert they had planned to attend together. In the vacuum left by Boomer music, Nicole has her first proper night out in Seattle, immersing herself in a kind of alt mélange that fuses every major 90s musical scene and then imbues them all with a post-grunge edginess.
Fear is acutely anxious about the relation between these two spaces, which are variously framed as the conflict between father and boyfriend, the conflict between Boomers and Gen X-ers, and the conflict between downtown Seattle and suburban Puget Sound. On their very first date, David pointedly rivals the panoptic sweep of Steven’s house, helping Nicole escape a rave raid by taking her to the warehouse roof and climbing over a precipitous fire escape as a police helicopter circles around overhead, before driving her to Duwamish Head to enjoy a panoramic night prospect of the city that exceeds even the best views from Steven’s home.
Foley tends to represent this juncture between David’s space and Steven’s space in two distinct ways, both of which involve intensified, sped-up camera movement. First, he imagines the threshold between their respective spaces as an urban jungle – natural enough to feel continuous with Puget Sound, but dangerous enough to feel continuous with the inner city too. The film opens with a montage that intercuts Nicole in a steamy sauna with a manic tracking-shot through urban undergrowth, and Nick’s first murder takes place in a particularly jungly pocket of woodland. Second, Foley imagines the threshold between Seattle and Puget Sound as the sexual contact between Nick and Nicole, which is one of the highlights of the film, splintering time and space so that the strict boundaries of the opening act no longer ramify. In two scenes Nick changes clocks to give him more time with Nicole; in another, they share an erotic moment on a roller coaster that abstracts them from all spatiotemporal constraints. Most of these sexual scenes tend to be set to a cover of “Wild Horses” by the Sundays, as Steven’s Boomer legacy is appropriated and reinvented by a new indie moment.
This spatial conflict is so acute that is quickly sidesteps the relation between David and Nicole. Instead the second and third acts focus mainly on the relation between David and Steven, as David sets out to replace Steven, and largely succeeds. Not only is he better with Nicole, but he’s better with Steven’s second wife Laura, played by Amy Brenneman, and even gives Steve a knowing fatherly glance when he catches him checking out Nicole’s best friend Margo, played by Alyssa Milano. This crisis is even more acute in that Steven is clearly keen to make up for lost time with Nicole, and re-assert their father-daughter relationship despite moving on to a new family. From their first conversation, it’s clear he wants to baby her, and make up for the years they lost, giving her a “Daddy’s Girl” pin to cement his claim to her femininity.
As a result, Fear is less of a stalker narrative, and more of a home invasion narrative, increasingly focusing on Steven as the main character as he starts to feel trapped in his own house. First, he comes home to find David in his place – throwing his wife into the pool, joking with his son, hanging out with his daughter. Then, Nicole tells him, in no uncertain terms, that he can’t and won’t be a point of reference in her relationship with David, regardless of whether or not she breaks up with him. Finally, in the best scene of the first two acts, David confronts Steven with his limitations, effectively articulating the weirdness of this protective father figure as a cinematic trope, as he eloquently outlines Steven’s “fear’s and anxieties.”
So convincing is Wahlberg in this scene that for a brief moment it feels as if this could really all be Steven’s pathology and projection. While David returns as the villain of the piece pretty quickly, there’s still an odd and unique dynamic – he’s clearly a psychopath, and yet it always feels as if Steven is paranoically overreading the situation as well. Rather than Steven simply being “good” and David being “bad,” the whole father-fiancee agon normalised by films like Father of the Bride is unresolved, estranging us from this most familiar of Hollywood tropes in a really fascinating way. As a result, Fear can never really decide how to profile David as a threat – at times, he just seems to have anger issues, at times he feels like a full-blown stalker, and at rare moments he seems even weirder, as when Steven discovers a shrine to Nicole in his house. In a very real sense, he doesn’t really exist as a character but as the alternating projections of Steven and Nicole as they both imagine the space just beyond Steven’s reach.
For that reason, Fear can’t simply end with David abducting, possessing or murdering Nicole. Instead, there’s a striking change of pace at the end of the second act, when David kills Nicole’s best friend, threatens every member of her family, stalks her down, and corners hrt in a bathroom cubicle, only to leave abruptly. From here, the film pivots into a third act that sets David’s space against Steven’s space. Rather than trying to locate and secure Nicole, or lock down with the rest of his family, Steven gets David’s address, and trashes his house, inducing David to come after his own house in turn, with a crew of motley post-grunge pals.
It’s at this point that Fear transforms into a fully-fledged home invasion drama, albeit an unusual one, since the invasion occurs at the end of the film, as a climax, rather than as a premise. Since Nicole has already given David the security key, he’s able to thwart Steven’s command of virtual space immediately, leaving nothing but the physical threshold of the Puget Sound house as the last bastion of fatherly authority. To that end, Foley opts for a series of really – surprisingly – violent and visceral sequences in which all the surfaces and entry points of this house are exposed and violated. Prior to this point in the film, Wahlberg has put in a particularly pec-centric performance, from the tight shirts and shirtless scenes of the first act, to the more pointed pec scenes of the second act, when he uses his chest as an edifice to thwart Steven. Just after his final confrontation with Steven, he smashes his chest ritualistically to make Nicole think Steven has bashed him, while his last gesture before the invasion is to tattoo Nicole’s name across his chest to insist on her as his property and right.
In other words, Wahlberg’s chest goes from a throwback to his Calvin Klein days to the edifice he brings to bear against Steven’s house, lunging his pecs against every impediment that Steven and his family can conceive. So insatiable is Wahlberg’s chest that it starts to resemble the unkillable intensity of the slasher, which is perhaps the best way to describe his particular brand of psychopathy here. While he’s never framed as a slasher per se, he has the same ludic intensity as the best slashers. Similarly, the first and second acts are full of small slasher inflections that don’t quite make sense until the third – most notably when Nicole stops suddenly outside her house one afternoon, scanning the greenery for a slasher gaze that somehow feels it should be there, even though we know every major character is elsewhere.
If the standoff were simply between Steven’s house and David’s pecs, then David would probably win, so it takes Nicole, and her younger stepbrother to resurrect the virtual space that Steven couldn’t fully command. First, Nicole has the idea to flash the lights on and off in her bedroom, thereby sending a Morse code mobile signal to the security box, which is perched high above the house, but in a direct sightline with her window. Even Nicole’s know-how isn’t enough, however, when the security guard arrives and is promptly shot, and while she has the idea to use the car phone to dial 911, only her younger brother can fit out the window and make his way to the garage. The final message of Fear, then, is that fatherly authority is ultimately not commensurate to virtual reality, and must be supplemented by the younger members of the family, who need to take on some of this burden of phallic authority vicariously. Sure enough, Nicole spears David in the back when he attacks Steven – a really brutal bit of violence I didn’t see coming, and which effectively resolves the home invasion.
And, to its credit, Fear ends as soon as the family crisis is resolved, shifting abruptly to the first wide shot of the Puget Sound house we ever see, and then pulling back to the widest shot in the film as the final credits roll. With David neutered, we can finally see the house in situ, peruse it from the outside, and even imagine it in the broader Washington sprawl as the image finally fades, although ironically the house itself is actually in Vancouver, meaning this vision of American paternal omniscience is ultimately, and literally, a fantasy. The result is one of the most unusual thrillers of the mid-90s, and a particularly intriguing vehicle for its stars. On the one hand, it doesn’t really get Reese, who exudes intelligence and charisma so effortlessly that it’s a bit unconvincing to see her play the ingénue. Similarly, it’s hard to know whether the film is trying to draw on or apologise for Wahlberg’s history of hate crimes, which was still very fresh at this point – probably a bit of both – and it’s surreal to see him so close to his formative self, now all but repressed from his public persona, but oddly present in Fear.