Horror movies traffic in the fear of the unknown, and one way to achieve that sense of paralyzing uncertainty is to keep the actors in the dark, both literally and figuratively. The Blair Witch Project famously sent its three leads into the woods without a script, or even much of an outline, then proceeded to terrorize them in the middle of the night, letting them improvise a response; audiences were sharply divided on whether the result is terrifying or insufferable, but there’s no denying that the emotions onscreen are to some extent authentic. Veteran TV director Jeremy Lovering tries something similar with his debut feature, In Fear, which was reportedly shot in sequence without any of its three actors knowing where the story was headed or how it would end. Trouble is, In Fear takes place almost entirely inside a moving car, severely limiting both the cast’s isolation (a big factor in Blair Witch’s strategy) and the extent to which they could wander off in an unexpected direction. Instead, the film simply goes in circles.
Another key difference is that these characters aren’t filming themselves. (You may now sigh with relief.) Just a couple of weeks after they’ve begun dating, Tom (Iain De Caestecker, from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Lucy (Ginger And Rosa’s Alice Englert) are heading to a music festival of some sort in Ireland, with a quick detour at a rustic hotel en route. Signs pointing the way to the hotel lead them into a seemingly impossible maze, however, as they keep passing the same creepy-looking cabin no matter which way they turn at various forks in the road. Meanwhile, night and rain are both falling, the car is running dangerously low on petrol (as they call it), and unseen figures are pulling at Lucy’s hair and hiding the car keys whenever the two stop to try to get their bearings. Eventually, they nearly run down a badly wounded fellow named Max (Allen Leech, from Downton Abbey), who says he’s a local being hounded by a group of thugs. Whether he can be trusted, however, is highly questionable, especially given his pointed questions from the backseat.
Max doesn’t turn up until roughly the halfway point, and prior to his arrival In Fear consists almost exclusively of Tom and Lucy driving around aimlessly, as De Caestecker and Englert do their best to improvise flirty banter that gradually metamorphoses into anxious sniping. (Lovering clearly fed them some ideas, though—a game in which Tom has Lucy choose between options like “knife or fork” and “bare feet or shoes” at top speed foreshadows a horrific split-second decision she has to make later on.) The sense of menace is decidedly low-grade, and while adding a third party with ambiguous intentions livens things up a bit (thanks mostly to Leech’s cannily double-edged performance), the direction the film ultimately takes is disappointing, culminating in a psychologically nonsensical final shot. Imagine Funny Games (either version) without the meta-movie aspect. Even those annoyed by Michael Haneke’s hectoring in those pictures must admit that there wouldn’t be much left but random, pointless sadism without it.