2023, R, 85 min. Directed by Deon Taylor. Starring Joseph Sikora, Annie Ilonzeh, Terrence J, Ruby Modine, King Bach, T.I., Jessica Allain, Iddo Goldberg.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Jan. 27, 2023

Is 2023 the year that the dam finally breaks on pandemic horror? We are only three weeks into the new year, and we have already been treated to two high-profile films set in the darkest days of 2020. The first such film – John Hyams’ Sick, with a screenplay co-written by Scream maestro Kevin Williamson – hit streaming platforms last week with a strong word of mouth. But it is Deon Taylor’s Fear that will have folks wondering if we really need to spend this year rehashing the last two.

Even under the threat of a global pandemic, thirtysomething couple Rom (Sikora) and Bianca (Ilonzeh) still have plenty to celebrate. That’s why they convince their group of friends to spend a long weekend with them at the Strawberry Lodge, a remote cabin in the California countryside. But when threats of a super-pandemic force the group to shelter in place, they soon find themselves under the thrall of a demonic witch who forces them to live out their worst waking nightmares.

For a concept like Fear to work, the nightmares each character is forced to endure must serve to advance our understanding of something. This approach would allow writer/director Deon Taylor (Fatale, Black and Blue) to build something substantive from his modest setup, such as more insight into the demonic mythology or even just the tensions felt by this group of friends. But each death sequence is so isolated from the narrative around it that the whole affair falls immediately flat. Fear is more a clip show of 21st-century horror tropes than a self-contained feature.

Take the scene where T.I.’s character is forced into the basement. It’s standard fare for any apocalyptic thriller – ignoring, if we can, the exploitative approach Fear takes to pandemic anxieties – and if nothing else, should be a definitive breaking point for the group. But the rules of Fear are so poorly conceived that even this sequence fails to land. The characters were merely possessed by fear, and when their turn comes to die, those deaths only serve as glorified callbacks to their campfire confessions.

It is frustrating to watch Fear carelessly oscillate between creature feature, haunted house movie, and folk horror. Movies like this don’t need to be new to break the mold – horror is cinematic jazz, a series of variations on a central theme – but you must at least recognize why the artists you borrow from made an impression in the first place. In the end, the scariest thing about Fear is its stock video opening montage – not a compliment any director wants to hear.

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Fear, Deon Taylor, Joseph Sikora, Annie Ilonzeh, Terrence J, Ruby Modine, King Bach, T.I., Jessica Allain, Iddo Goldberg

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