During the first few days of a new relationship, it’s hard to read the signs. This is the underlying message of In Fear, assuming there’s any message at all. It’s best to give it the benefit of the doubt, though, because otherwise, it truly is a long, dull trip to nowhere.
A voicemail message sets the scene over the credits. Tom (played by Iain De Caestecker, best known as engineer Leo Fitz from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) leaves a nervous, nice-guy invitation for a woman he just met. There’s a festival in Ireland, and he suggests they can travel together to meet separate groups of friends there. The gal, Lucy (played by Alice Englert, of the unfairly maligned Beautiful Creatures), is introduced sitting on a toilet in a pub, scrawling comebacks to the ominous aphorisms on the wall. The pair are still at the test-the-waters stage. They’re attracted to each other, but admitting that would mean losing footing with each other. The two zing back and forth, and even through the mundane dialogue, their chemistry is apparent.
Tom admits he’s booked a reservation at a romantic hotel for one night, hoping to go there before meeting up with the others. After some requisite resistance, she agrees. They drive off, following a Range Rover that leads them off the GPS-recommended track, to a more remote area. Along the way, Tom, who has a Scottish accent (it’s never clear where this pair is coming from) references some awkwardness at the pub. Implied: some Straw Dogs scenario, where the locals and the moneyed tourists clearly don’t get along.
Once they enter the woods, the signs to the hotel have them going in circles. Then it gets dark. After stepping out of the car for a minute, Tom loses his keys. How could Tom lose his keys? Searching for them proves aggravating, especially when the car alarm keeps going off. Then a door mysteriously slams. How the heck did that happen?
Writer-director Jeremy Lovering (who had an episode of BBC’s Sherlock air after In Fear’s debut at Sundance 2013) doubles down on ambiance over story. The two leads make the most out of the confined space; their performances are given almost entirely from within the car. But the camera jumps the line into omniscience from time to time. Early into the duo’s vehicular wanderings, there are ominous handheld shots from behind bushes. When Lucy becomes convinced she sees someone out there, viewers are meant to identify with her, having been spoon-fed some Film Grammar 101. In time, the film adds a cast member (Allen Leech), but the car keeps going in circles, running low on gas, with something out there in the dark.
As an exercise in stomach-knotting, In Fear is mildly successful. The film deserves a bit of credit for going easy on the gratuitous jump-scares, though it does love its abrasive music cues and low-angle shots of evocatively lit automobiles. What it lacks is anything resembling a compelling, creative story. Toward the end of the film, Lucy breaks down and cries the standard “What do you want from me?” Audience members may have the same question for Lovering. All the pieces are in place for a gripping indie horror flick, but this pointless, motivation-free film just goes around in circles.
As it happens, In Fear was shot as something of a “cinema experiment.” Lovering intentionally kept his two leads in the dark, ordering them to drive in certain directions and simply react to the increasingly scary obstacles along the way. Prior knowledge of this ought not to change any opinions of the film. The gimmick isn’t felt in an obvious manner—it isn’t like, say, shooting the same child growing into adolescence over the course of 12 years in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Sometimes these tricks do resonate in ways that don’t exactly work on a conscious level—Jonathan Glazer’s use of non-actors and stashed cameras in the forthcoming Under The Skin is an example. But learning the secret behind In Fear merely replaces one shrug with another. Frankly, it’s just more evidence that production began on this movie with no solid ideas, other than “Let’s just hit the gas pedal and see where we end up.”