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in-fear

While some might disagree, I firmly believe that there’s one, universal fear: being lost in an unfamiliar place. Not everyone is terrified of spiders, dogs, heights, the dark or rutabagas but I’d be more than willing to wager that it’s impossible to find a person who isn’t afraid of being lost somewhere. Sure, you’ll always have the adventurous folks who say that getting lost in a new place is half the fun but I’m pretty sure there are qualifiers: said folks might enjoy being lost in a bustling, vibrant, overseas food market but how would they feel about suddenly finding themselves wandering some anonymous country road, alone, in the middle of night with nothing but a matchbook for illumination?

Getting lost in this big world of ours used to be a much easier task: anyone who remembers the acute joy of unfolding the equivalent of thirteen miles of intricately folded paper in order to find their current location “on the fly” knows this all too well. With the introduction of smart phones and GPS, however, the world has become notably smaller and it’s become decidedly more difficult to become truly lost. After all: how often do we actually come upon a location that doesn’t show up on the all-seeing eye of the Global Positioning System? According to writer-director Jeremy Lovering’s In Fear (2013), it does happen. The results, as you might guess, aren’t pretty.

Tom (Iain De Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) are a young couple who’ve been dating for a couple of weeks and decide to meet a bunch of friends at a big music festival in Ireland. In order to celebrate their fledgling relationship, Tom (without Lucy’s knowledge) has booked them a stay at an isolated inn that happens to be on the way, all the better to get a little “alone time” before they meet up with the rest of the crew.

After some unpleasant run-ins with the locals that we hear about (but don’t see), Tom and Lucy find themselves driving down a seemingly endless country road, following what seems to be an absurd amounts of signs that purport to lead the way to their inn, the Kilairney House Hotel. On the way, they pass a sinister-looking, decrepit house with a prominent “Do Not Enter” sign affixed to the front gate. Lucy also begins to get the creeping suspicion that someone (or something?) is watching them from the shadows, as the day quickly transitions into the even shadowier evening.

As the couple continues to drive in circles, their relationship begins to fray at the edges. Things really get interesting, however, when the couple accidentally plows into a mysterious stranger who just appears in the center of the road. The bloodied Max (Allen Leech) claims that he was attacked by a group of local hunters, folks who he has some sort of undisclosed beef with. Finagling a ride from Tom and Lucy, Max seems like a harmless enough, if rather odd, fellow. As the couple will discover, however, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. What are Max’s real intentions? Does he have anything to do with their current predicament or is it just coincidence that they happened upon him? Who is watching the group from the woods? What happened with the locals in the pub? Is there a logical explanation for what’s happening or have the couple managed to slip through the cracks of our comfortable, well-lit existence into something decidedly more shadowy and evil? Will they ever make it to the inn? If so, what will they find there?

At first glance, In Fear seems to be yet the latest in a long line of “backwoods brutality” pictures, those delightful little gems that feature citified folks heading into rural areas (usually in foreign countries), running afoul of the (usually) debauched locals and being pursued/tortured/eaten/etc. In a nice change of pace, however, Lovering doesn’t make this notion the main course, even though he keeps it simmering on the back burner for much of the film’s relatively short running time. Instead, In Fear ends up being something decidedly more eerie, supernatural and difficult to describe, with the closest parallel that I can handily recall being something like the highly under-rated Dead End (2003), where Ray Wise and Lin Shaye found themselves trapped on an endlessly repeating stretch of country road.

In fact, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its steadfast refusal to over-explain anything or hold the audience’s hand. While some viewers might be turned off by the strange, open-ended nature of the film, that aspect actually elevated the proceedings, as far as I’m concerned. Lovering doles out little details, here and there, but we’re never quite sure what’s going on or why: at one point, Max tells Tom and Lucy that they must have provoked “them” but we have absolutely no idea who he means…the locals? The mysterious hunters who’ve strung strange pelts across the road? The woods, itself? Ghosts? Sasquatch? We never find out and the film is all the stronger for it.

Along with the simple, compact script and structure, In Fear also benefits from a trio of exceptionally capable performances: when your film only features three actors, they better all be able to hold their own and Lovering’s cast acquit themselves quite nicely. De Caestecker (excellent in the recent Filth (2013)) and Englert (star of the recent Beautiful Creatures (2013)) make a good couple and have genuine chemistry together, which is something that you see all too infrequently in indie horror films like this. In most cases, you’re left wondering why people this miserable would ever want to spend time together: here, we buy their new relationship from the get-go, which makes the eventual collapse more impactful. More importantly, Tom and Lucy are both sympathetic characters (barring the odd moment where Tom sneaks up on Lucy and scares her for no reason, whatsoever), which makes what happens to them more powerful.

The third point of the triangle, Allen Leech, is probably the most high-profile, especially following his excellent turn in last year’s Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game (2014) and his recurring role on the hugely popular Downton Abbey. It’s also important to remember, however, that Leech was equally fantastic as John Cusack’s creepy assistant in the stellar Grand Piano (2014) and it’s this particular well that he dips into for In Fear. Leech’s Max is a highly enigmatic character, swinging wildly from absolute insanity to cheerful “laddish” behavior, often within the same scene. We never do really find out who Max is or what he wants but, as with the rest of the film’s open-ended nature, this feels less like an omission and more like a very conscious choice. Regardless of where he ends up fitting in the overall scheme of things, Leech’s Max is a really great, endlessly creepy character and another unforgettable performance from one of the 2000’s most interesting actors.

Ultimately, In Fear is the very definition of a sleeper: the film defies all expectations and, in its own way, is one of the more successful horror films I’ve seen recently. Rather than holding it back, the film’s small-scale and modest scope allow it a focus missing in many similar indie films: unlike other low-budget genre filmmakers who swing for the stars and miss miserably, Lovering and company focus on telling a small story in a tight, focused manner and succeed quite handily. When the film is creepy, it really burrows under your skin and takes up residence: just the hazy lighting quality of the dusk scenes, alone, is enough to light up the reptilian fear parts of the brain. With David Katznelson’s evocative cinematography and Daniel Pemberton and Roly Porter’s constantly ominous score, In Fear is a quality piece of work, from start to finish.

If getting lost in the middle of nowhere is one of your big fears, In Fear might just give you a case of the old cold sweats. Even if you’re one of those weekend warriors who relishes getting lost in the great outdoors, however, I’m willing to wager that you’ll still find something to unsettle you. At the very least, can’t we all agree that picking up mysterious, bloody strangers, in the middle of a deserted country road, at night, is just not a good idea?

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