Fear at 25: A Teenage Fatal Attraction-Style Thriller

Turning 25 today, James Foley’s 1996 psychological thriller Fear was notable for featuring Mark Wahlberg in his first leading role as well as pre-Election and Legally Blonde star Reese Witherspoon.

For the former, this was Wahlberg’s third acting work in a film at the time following his appearances in Renaissance Man (1994) and The Basketball Diaries (1995). Neither of them was household names in Hollywood when they made Fear and despite mixed reviews, the US$6.5 million-budgeted thriller proved to be a sleeper hit at US$20.8 million in the box office.

The movie itself is pretty much a typical Fatal Attraction-like template except for this one, it’s about teenagers. Written by Christopher Crowe whose prior notable credit was The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Fear follows a 16-year-old blonde girl Nicole Walker (Witherspoon) met David McCall (Wahlberg) and falls in love with him immediately. At first, David seems like a perfect guy every girl would die for: he’s sweet, handsome and charming. But Nicole’s dad, Steven (pre-CSI William Petersen) doesn’t really like him and he turns out to be right.

William Petersen in James Foley's "Fear" (1996)

You see, David is more of a psycho pretending to be a Mr Nice Guy but he’s a jealousy type who hates anyone getting too close with his girl. That includes Nicole’s best friend, Gary (Todd Caldecott), where David ends up attacking him. She eventually breaks up with him but doesn’t take long before they reconcile. But as Nicole learns more about him, she begins to realise that David isn’t the ideal person after all.

I remember when I first saw Fear back in 1996, I initially found it more of a workmanlike thriller trying to replicate the success of Fatal Attraction — Adrian Lyne’s 1987 highly influential, erotic psychological thriller starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close that famously inspired countless like-minded films. Upon revisiting the movie again, there’s something about Fear that works well in today’s era rather than when it first screened 25 years ago. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make this kind of thriller like they used to. Even they do have a few of them, we got forgettable ones like Swimfan (2002), The Roommate (2011) and The Boy Next Door (2015).

Here, James Foley does a good job executing the otherwise familiar genre all reasonably taut and stylish, coupled with Thomas Kloss’ glossy cinematography and some better-than-average acting performances. Wahlberg’s obsessive turn as a psycho boyfriend-from-hell is the major selling point here while Witherspoon does well in her role of a naive schoolgirl who falls for the wrong guy. In what could have been an obligatory dad role, William Petersen’s character as a workaholic and overprotective father does make quite an impression.

Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg in James Foley's "Fear" (1996)

Let’s not forget about the roller coaster scene either, where Nicole is having the best night of her life as David starts fingering under her short skirt. All mesmerisingly scored to The Sundays’ dreamy cover version of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”. Then, there’s the climactic third act that ventures into an elaborate Straw Dogs-like territory, where Steven trying to protect his family as David and his friends trying to break into their house. Although not as violent as that Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 controversial thriller, the ending remains tense and engaging enough even rewatching it again.

Despite the formulaic approach in its plot, the movie’s lurid approach to disturbing themes such as toxic relationship (the twisted love between Wahlberg’s David and Witherspoon’s Nicole) and obsession are quintessential 90s thrillers of its kinds. Speaking of Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon, they were reportedly dating together when they made Fear. But according to E! Online, their allegedly real-life romance were just rumours after “neither has ever confirmed a relationship”.

After the unexpected success of Fear in 1996, Mark Wahlberg’s career was subsequently on the rise, earning praises in Boogie Nights the year after and appeared in high-profile Hollywood blockbusters in the 2000s such as The Perfect Storm (2000) and Planet of the Apes remake (2001). In 1999, Wahlberg would reunite with James Foley in the little-seen action thriller The Corruptor, where he plays a New York cop teaming up with Chow Yun-Fat to stop the triads in Chinatown.