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Review: ‘Fear’ Is a Haunted Hotel Pandemic Horror Story Riddled with Clichés

Review: ‘Fear’ Is a Haunted Hotel Pandemic Horror Story Riddled with Clichés

Writer-director Deon Taylor (Traffik) kicks off 2023 with his psychological horror film set during a pandemic. Co-written by John Ferry, Fear follows eight friends vacationing at a secluded (and haunted) lodge who become increasingly paranoid about getting sick while also experiencing hallucinations caused by malevolent spirits. Yes, it’s both a haunted hotel story and a global pandemic story, and the result of combining the two sub-genres is as convoluted and riddled with clichés as one would expect. 

Rom (Joseph Sikora) takes his girlfriend Bianca (Annie Ilonzeh) on a weekend getaway in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. It’s the middle of a pandemic, and while the disease isn’t explicitly referred to as COVID-19, it’s implied. When they arrive at the Historic Strawberry Lodge, the couple is greeted by their friends Benny (Andrew Bachelor), Michael (Iddo Goldberg), Serena (Ruby Modine), Meg (Jessica Allain), Russ (Terrence Jenkins), and Lou (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a belated birthday surprise for Bianca. 

Right away, there’s drinking and dancing, and later, everyone gathers around a fire. Instead of spooky ghost stories, the friends share their worst fears with each other, which vary from drowning to being a victim of police violence. Rom also tells them about the area’s haunted history involving greedy gold miners and evil witches. Then there are everyone’s anxieties over the pandemic. It’s a lot. 

Hours later, what was supposed to be “the best weekend of their lives” (what makes this trip worthy of that title, I have no idea) turns into a nightmare as they’re forced to shelter in place. These friends turn on each other out of fear, becoming similarly hysterical as the characters in Cabin Fever. But instead of a flesh-eating disease, this virus has sneakier symptoms, ones that can be dismissed as allergies (though no one buys that for a second). 

While the airborne disease paranoia is timely and something society has experienced firsthand, combining that with a haunted lodge and a history of tortured, vengeful witches with the power to drive people mad by showing them their worst fear is way too much for a single film. The two concepts work separately, but together it gets messy because the history of the lodge is all over the place.

During the obligatory paranormal research scenes, two characters uncover different disturbing information about what I assume are the same group of women from the 1800s. While one reads about the angel of death and wine initiations online, the other shuffles through dusty photographs and (vague) occult literature about collecting souls and immortality rituals in the basement. 

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Fear is filled to the brim with horror tropes — flickering lights, whispering voices, sounds of laughing children, creepy paintings, old time-y music, slamming doors, and a basement full of random items covered in dust and cobwebs. The plot(s) isn’t hard to follow, and everything is laid out fine. There are just so many things happening that it’s difficult to find anything scary. A few kill scenes are unexpected and delightfully gruesome for horror fans, but if you’ve seen either of the two trailers, you’re already witnessed at least three of those scenes. 

The film does have some cool cinematography with plenty of camera tilts and interesting effects. The opening credits are a red-hued, American Horror Story-like montage with creepy images of burning photos, woods, broken glass, a burning cross, staticky TV, up-close shots of eyeballs, etc. The music that plays isn’t as distinct or effective but it works. Director of Photography Christopher Duskin (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) sets an unsettling tone from the start with creatively disorienting camera movements that are utilized more as the characters are spiraling. 

Along with the cast and crew, Taylor managed to film this project in 17 days. Anyone who can organize a film shoot during a pandemic has my respect. The amount of work that goes into following safety protocols and making sure everyone gets tested regularly is quite the feat, especially in that short time frame. Some casting and location scouting came before there was even a full script, and I imagine that’s how multiple ideas ended up crammed into one 85-minute film. I have to say his original idea sounded more intriguing, which was “to go to a cabin and have three people in the cabin and do something very small and indie.”

Fear taps into the collective panic the world faced in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when people were isolated in quarantine. The concept of spirits getting into people’s heads and causing them to see their worst fears is compelling and has the potential to be genuinely frightening. However, the unclear haunted history of the lodge, as well as formulaic subplots make the film too packed to be a horror film worth watching in a theater. 

Fear opens in theaters nationwide on January 27, 2023.

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