I took my friend Tiffany to my senior prom and recall vividly the look her parents gave me when I arrived at the door.
Wearing a suit and tie, holding a massive bouquet of roses and a smile I hoped would appear reassuring, they clearly weren’t entirely convinced and had me come inside.
I spoke with Tiffany’s parents for a while, though Tiffany, who looked simply gorgeous, was as ready to go as I was. I’m not sure what it was about me, but I got the feeling they didn’t entirely trust me taking out their daughter to the prom.
I made small talk, gave specific answers to their questions about where we were going, how long we’d be out, the possibility of seeing a movie afterwards (“Up Close & Personal,” which, thankfully, we passed on) and that we’d call if we were running late.
What happened is that we had a lovely time, and I actually got her home early. I asked her months later what her parents thought of me when they first met me on prom night and she said, “They thought you were funny.” I’m still unsure what she meant by this, unless “funny” is code for “seedy and suspicious.”
James Foley’s “Fear” (1996) is about exactly the kind of parents I encountered (and, as much as I despise admitting it, the kind of parent I’m on my way to becoming).
Here’s a thriller about a lovely high school teen named Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) who falls in love with David (Mark Wahlberg), who is brooding, handsome and muscular. He’s also utterly wrong for Nicole, which her father (played by William Peterson) recognizes immediately, though her stepmom (Amy Brenneman) is more forgiving of David.
As Nicole and David grow closer and become more intimate, she struggles to hide the extent of their relationship from Dad, while David tries to disguise how he’s a cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs psychopath.
The buddy sexuality of a young girl can provide the theme of a teen comedy or a thoughtful, coming of age drama, but this is a horror film. If “Twilight” (2008) knew that Edward Cullen was the film’s villain (and no, it doesn’t), then it would be “Fear.”
Compelling and completely icky at the same time, Foley takes an R.L. Stine-worthy (or Stephanie Meyers-approved) pulp premise and spins it into an uncomfortable tale of parental failure. It’s somewhat astonishing that this is the same director who gave us “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992), though I still prefer this over his Bruce Willis/Halle Berry howler “Perfect Stranger” (2007) or, just as bad, Foley’s “Fifty Shades Darker” (2017) and “Fifty Shades Freed” (2018).
To a lesser degree (but just slightly), Dad is also a creep, as we see him ogling Nicole’s nothing-but-trouble best friend, played by Alyssa Milano, quite good in a thankless part.
Witherspoon is playing 16 years old and was roughly that age when filming took place in 1994. There’s nothing about Witherspoon here that evokes the empowerment and headstrong focus of her characters from either “Election” or “Legally Blonde,” as Nicole is utterly vulnerable and impressionable, a quality Wahlberg’s Big Bad Wolf fully takes advantage of (and yes, I’m aware of the literal Big Bad Wolf movie Witherspoon did the same year, “Freeway,” where her character and performance are a radical contrast to what she does in “Fear”).
Peterson’s intensity from “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) and “Manhunter” (1986) is intact; the actor may be in a teen-bait horror film but he’s treating it like he’s in a Michael Mann movie, which is why I love this actor.
Whether it’s in movies like this or “Young Guns II” or a William Friedkin classic, Peterson always gives the role everything he’s got. Brenneman, post-“Heat,” is, likewise, giving a forceful dramatic turn that is far more committed than you’d expect from the R-rated Lifetime movie scenario.
Wahlberg is effective in this early, not fully rounded but still imposing turn. Wahlberg actually informs Peterson at one point, “I licked her tears.” Later, we see that David has a tattoo (presumably self-made) on his chest that reads, “Nicole 4 Eva.”
Then, it gets really silly.
David also has a mural dedicated to Nicole, with pictures of Withersoon photoshopped onto angels and other such stalker nonsense, and I call b.s. on this: David visibly doesn’t own a computer, let alone possess the skills for such subpar, early-90’s OfficeMax cut and paste crap art.
I believe David could twist the head off of Nicole’s best buddy but there’s no way this guy has photoshop skills of any kind. The artist formerly known as Marky Mark is really good here, even sans his Funky Bunch, but David’s deranged devotion to Nicole leans into camp classic territory.
So why am I somewhat defending Foley’s film? In addition to Peterson’s excellent performance and the trashy pull of the premise, it’s been beautifully shot and scored. The editing is lean, and it flies by in 96-minutes. Yet, in exchange for a brisk running time, the characterizations are extremely thin.
The best scenes are blunt and loaded with subtext: when Dad pretends to listen to David’s whining plea at the front door and then viciously shuts him down and refuses entry, we see that Dad, to his surprise as well as ours, can play the macho game of one-upmanship as well as David.
It’s nastier and worlds better than “The Crush” or “Poison Ivy,” which fulfilled the sleaze and 90’s “Lolita” angle but bungled the landing as a thriller that delivers cheap thrills and real suspense.
This gets really ugly in the third act, boldly and tastelessly wandering into full “Straw Dogs” territory, with a dog mutilation (a touch that made me hate this in 1996) and a home invasion with the threat of multiple rapes and murder. Even “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” (1992) wasn’t this twisted.
Truly, this is Lifetime’s “Mother, Can I Sleep With Danger,” but elevated immensely by the level of the acting and filmmaking. You know the film is working when the bad guy sports a tattoo that reads “Nicole 4 Eva” but you still can’t stop watching.