Back by popular demand, I have written another blog making fun of (I mean, celebrating!) silly ’90s thrillers. (And by “popular demand,” I mean that two of my high school girlfriends gushingly told me they liked my Hand that Rocks the Cradle blog entry and that’s apparently all the positive reinforcement I need).
When I was a freshman in high school, my wild and free years launched in all their glory. Okay, not exactly. But that was the year that carloads of us started going to the theatre to catch the latest movies. It was exciting to go out on a Saturday without parents. Life was beginning!
But then something very distressing happened. They started carding for R-rated movies. At first, we worked around this. Someone in our group who was seventeen would take our cash and buy us our tickets. That didn’t last long though. The theatre started limiting it to one ticket per person. They were killing us.
When the movie Fear came out in 1996, my girlfriends and I had to see it. It was a thriller shot in our home state of Washington and it starred Reese Witherspoon who we knew from the lovely coming of age film The Man in the Moon. It also starred Marky Mark – you know, the rapper who released the song “Good Vibrations,” modeled Calvin Klein underwear, and was the younger brother of New Kids On the Block’s Donny Wahlberg. This was before Boogie Nights came out and put Mark Wahlberg on the map as a critically acclaimed actor, so we were confused more than anything: “Wait a minute, Marky Mark acts?”
In any case, we had to see this movie and we were not letting an R-rating stop us. So we went in two car-loads to the theatre and purchased tickets to the only other movie starting at the same time that wasn’t rated R, which happened to be The Adventures of Pinocchio (seriously). We planned to sneak one by one into the screen that was showing Fear. Now let me point out that this was small-town USA in the ’90s, so don’t picture a megaplex where once you’re in, you could spend all day hopping from screen to screen and no one would be any the wiser. No, there were four screens total and they were all right off the lobby. The staff could see exactly where we were going and boom-chicka-boom, they were cracking down.
Not to be deterred, we snuck one by one into the screen that was showing Fear…. And we proceeded to jump (and laugh) our way through this suspenseful, silly flick. To this day, I still like this movie. It’s fun to see Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg in two of their earliest roles, and it’s got some standout scenes and decent suspenseful sequences.
So now I’m going to tell you what exactly makes Fear a silly ’90s thriller not to be forgotten.
Important Note: Domestic violence is a very serious issue, and in no way am I trying to make light of that issue by poking fun at this movie. If you are in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship of any kind, please talk to someone you trust, or reach out to a domestic violence support facility or hotline. (I didn’t feel the need to put a disclaimer on my Hand The Rocks The Cradle blog because I don’t think that psycho nannies are a prevalent problem, but in all seriousness, domestic abuse is).
Ok, on to the silliness….
Fear is a film about a teenage girl named Nicole (played by Reese Witherspoon) who falls for a seemingly nice, older guy named David (played by Mark Wahlberg) who turns out to be totally psychotic.
This movie starts off with an unintentionally funny moment. Nicole’s dad is a wealthy, workaholic architect named Steve (played by William Peterson). Steve gets a bit of character development in the opening minutes that shows us his intensity when he goes for a jog that turns into a sprint down his own (very long) driveway. I’m a runner myself, so I totally get it. Sometimes I, too, pretend there is an imaginary finish line and I run hard towards it. Anyway, that’s not the funny part. No, the funny part is that when Steve gets to the end of the driveway and we see that there is a security booth with a security guard sitting inside it. Um, okay. Steve is not exactly Bono. He’s an architect. So why does he have a full-time security guard sitting at the end of his driveway? Yes, Steve’s house is really nice. It’s a large waterfront home with modern architecture, but Steve is not an A-List movie star or former POTUS. There is absolutely no reason that he would have private security placed at the end of his driveway. A gate, maybe. A human guard? No.
Next we follow Nicole to school where we meet her friends (boring Gary and wild child Margo, played by Alyssa Milano). Margo wants to hit up some hip Seattle place to grab food/coffee before class, but Nicole is afraid that they’ll be late. She begrudgingly agrees to go but tells them they have to get it “to go.” So basically, Nicole = good girl. Margo = bad girl. It’s a match made in movie heaven.
Now about this coffee shop that actually seems more like a bar…. What kind of a joint is this place? 1996 was the tail end of the Seattle grunge era, and they really are playing that up in this scene. But seriously, if it’s before class, it’s presumably 7 or 8AM at the latest. But the pool table area is hopping. In fact, that is where Nicole first lays eyes on David, and vice versa. Hmm, why exactly are David and his scruffy friends playing pool at 8AM? Did they never go to sleep? Except they don’t look like they just pulled an all-night bender. I guess they’re just the up and at ’em types. Ye-ah…. just like all the other career criminals I know. Rise and shine.
Yeah, I said career criminal. That’s not revealed until later though, because first David needs to woo Nicole. After this first coffee-shop “meet cute” which is really just eye contact sex, David and Nicole encounter each other again at a party “at the docks.” Because you know, that’s where all raging parties take place. At the docks. How do they both end up there? Well, coincidentally that morning at the confusingly-hip coffee shop some guy was passing out fliers for the party. Nicole and Margo saw David and his buddy Scruffy-Face look at the flier and then fist-bump (which is obviously code for: “We are so going to the docks.”)
This party at the docks is a full-on rager. Margo quickly spots Scruffy-Face and abandons Nicole to dance with him (good buddy system). No worries though, because David swoops in to disarm and flirt with Nicole who feels completely out of place at this rave. The two have barely had a chance to connect when total mayhem breaks out. Fist fights! The cops are on their way! Etc. etc. David grabs Nicole and they make a run for it. They escape through a door that leads onto the roof, and they are met with not only the sound of sirens but the violently whirling winds of helicopters above and search lights overhead. Apparently this party at the docks was illegal. Now I don’t have any idea how the party planner managed to set up a stage for the DJ and install an elaborate sound system with massive strobe lighting without anyone noticing. By the time Nicole and Margo arrived to the party, there were hundreds of people there and the music was blaring. This was not exactly an under the radar party, so I’m not sure how it grew to the immense size that it was before the cops noticed.
But never mind, because it gives us a great opportunity for Nicole to be separated from Margo and White Knight “saved” by David. They take his car to West Seattle and sit on a bench and talk (i.e. fall in love).
Now here is one of the biggest reasons that Fear is a funny movie: David is really creepy. From the get-go. Before he goes full-on psycho. This is not Adult Me saying this. In 1996, every single one of my girlfriends thought this. David woos Nicole by talking to her in a low, creepy voice and doing weird things like stroking his defective car and whispering, “It’s not her fault they didn’t put her together right.” When Nicole tells David that she has a midnight curfew, he resets her watch and tells her they have all the time in the world. Very, very smooth. Oh wait, no, it’s not.
When Nicole arrives home late her stepmother Laura (played by Amy Brenneman) proceeds to slut-shame her by calling her a slut for wearing “two gallons of makeup.” Um, first of all, Nicole is barely wearing any makeup and Laura, it’s not okay to judge a female by her appearance. This is 1996, mm-kay?
But okay. Back to the shiny, new couple. Nicole falls for David and he for her. Which takes us to one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. The rollercoaster scene. To give you a little back story, Nicole has made it clear to David that she doesn’t want to move too fast physically. We can presume she doesn’t have a lot of sexual experience, so it’s a bit surprising to watch Nicole get her sexual awakening on a rollercoaster. A moving rollercoaster. (That’s all I’m going to say. Just watch the movie).
The happy couple spend a lot of time making out in public. Not stolen kisses, but wet, sloppy French-kisses while they grope each other, which of course eventually leads to Nicole losing her virginity to David (he used a condom though, so bonus points to the filmmakers for encouraging safe sex practices).
But surprise! All is not good in paradise. This is foreshadowed left and right including a weird moment where Scruffy-Face aggressively points at Nicole while kissing Margo and another uncomfortable moment when David smirks at Daddy Steve when Margo bends over in front of Steve, “accidentally” revealing some of her ass cheek under her short skirt.
Things get truly bad for Nicole though when she innocently hugs her boring underdeveloped friend Gary and David proceeds to beat the living hell out of him while Nicole screams “NO! DAVID STOP!” David then turns to Nicole and extends his hand to her in order to whisk her away, apparently not comprehending her distress.
From there, things really start to fall apart. If only the stepmom Laura didn’t believe Nicole when she claimed that her black eye came from gym class on the very day that Nicole also tells Laura that David kicked her friend Gary’s ass.
Not that there’s really anything the parents could have done. David is a psycho who will stop at nothing to win Nicole back. And he does briefly win her back by pulling some pretty clever stunts. For example, he beats his own chest until it’s black and blue and then tells Nicole that her dad did it to him. Eventually, Nicole wises up and dumps David once and for all. But David just won’t let it go. He shows up at her school and stalks her at the mall, cornering her in a bathroom and groping her against her will. David then proceeds to do the thing that all smitten boys do. He carves Nicole’s name into his own chest. Well, to be precise, he carves NICOLE 4-EVA (because obviously, it would highly be uncool to actually correctly spell out “forever.” Spelling is for losers). Back in 1996 when I saw this in the theatre with my girlfriends, we died laughing. We still say “NICOLE 4-EVA” to each other. Just last month, I think I ended an email with “P.S. NICOLE 4-EVA.”
While this movie has its silly moments, it’s not entirely unrealistic. In fact, what makes it scary is that it’s totally plausible. It has scenes of parental conflict and peer pressure and teenage dating that definitely have merit. And like any good thriller, it builds momentum with things going from uncertain to bad to worse as it leads us to the finale. And while a lot of thrillers include characters behaving obliviously and stupidly, the dad in this movie does try to intervene in an understandably parental way. But he just can’t get through to his daughter and by the time she wises up on her own, it’s too late. But of course, Daddy Steve does make one critical misstep. Despite knowing full-well that David is nuts, Steve goes to the house where David and his criminal friends live (conveniently someone’s parents are out of town for an extended period of time). When Steve sees David’s shrine to Nicole, he trashes the entire house. The entire house. Not smart, dude. Not smart. When David and his buddies get home and see the destruction, they are ready for payback.
So cue the finale. Margo shows up to tell Nicole that Gary was found murdered in the woods. (Yes, yes, of course David did it). They suspect that themselves, so Steve calls the cops to tell them about David, except no one at the station regards his call with urgency, which gives us one of my favorite lines in the entire film (it’s actually a very good line). Steve sarcastically says into the phone, “Okay, you’re right. It’s not an emergency. Could I please talk to the people that try to solve murders?”
Too late, Steve. Your phone line is about to go dead because David and his friends are here. The finale is full of some pretty good suspense and action moments. It’s also full of silliness, like when stepmom Laura says wishfully as the bad guys beat the windows with logs: “No one’s getting in here, Steven. You designed it, remember? Reinforced doors. No entry without the code.” Thanks for the exposition, Laura, but those guys are getting in whether you like it not so I suggest you stop running around with that flashlight and pick up a knife or baseball bat.
At this point you might be wondering how they got past full-time 24-7-365 security guard Larry. Well, they parked on the road and walked through the woods. Crazy and smart. But Nicole ain’t no dummy either. She gets the bright idea to flash a Morse code distress signal to Larry using her bedroom lights. As she sees the headlights of Larry driving toward them on the driveway, she tells Margo that everything is going to be alright. Um, Nicole, one question: How is overweight, gray-haired Larry going to protect you against four psychotic criminals who are hell bent on killing your entire family and kidnapping you? Oh, that’s right. He’s not. The bad guys kill Larry and get into the impossible-to-breach house.
And that’s when Nicole’s little brother Toby basically saves the day. Now you’re thinking, Toby? She has a little brother? That’s right, she does. I didn’t mention him before because he’s only had two and one third lines so far. But suddenly Toby turns into the real hero of the story when he climbs out of the upstairs window, uses the Jeep phone to call 9-1-1 and backs the vehicle over one of the three remaining bad guys bringing the “us versus them” count to five versus two. Not bad for a kid who had all his other scenes end up on the cutting room floor!
In the end, David is the last bad guy standing and there is a crazy fight scene between David and Steve where Nicole gets in the action too. Good prevails of course, and Steve throws David out the window with a toss that makes David look like a human shot put. He arches through the air gaining height as he leaves the window and lands a good thirty feet from the house. Steve is superhuman strong. And Nicole is safe and has learned a valuable lesson: Don’t date boys you meet at the docks.
Oh, Fear. I love you! I love you for the movie you want to be. And I love you for the movie you almost are. Oh, wait, that’s a Jerry Maguire quote. Really though, I do love you for giving us a time capsule of Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg in juicy young roles. And I love you for the high school memory of sneaking in underage to see R-rated you. And I love you for the fact that twenty years later, I still sometimes watch you.
That’s all. Oh wait, not it’s not…..
PS. NICOLE 4-EVA
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.