James Foley’s Fear (1996) is probably one of the more neglected horror films. Its antagonist is not the typical movie monster. No demons, vampires, or masked murderers are featured in this flick—just a violent teenaged sociopath named David (Mark Wahlberg). What’s more, cinematic versions of obsessive lovers were embodied almost exclusively by females in the late eighties and early nineties—for example, Fatal Attraction (1987), Single White Female (1992), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Poison Ivy (1992), and The Crush (1993). In Fear, however, the shoe was suddenly on the other foot.
As a teenybopper, barely into double digits, I felt an instant attraction to Fear. I had discovered Sleeping with the Enemy not long before, but David’s erratic aggression was something else entirely. As I watched him, I realized domestic violence was not restricted to the adult world; it could potentially play out among mall rats and cool kids. Suffice it to say, the movie shaped my initial understandings of young men and turned me off to dating in my teens.
No wonder, given the film’s overall message: father knows best, and the guy looking to date the daughter is actually a lying, murdering psycho. The daughter in the movie, Nicole (Reese Witherspoon), ignores house rules, wears skimpy clothes, and hangs out with delinquents and slackers. At first, David seems like the knight to Nicole’s teenage angst. He patiently listens to her recount a complicated home life and wins her carnival prizes. Then things take a turn.
What seemed like a desire to protect Nicole has turned into something quite different. Greedy for her affection, he beats up her male friend, Gary (Todd Caldecott), leaving her with a black eye in the process. But David’s malevolence becomes clearer in stages. He is given a second chance, love again sours, and his nature as abuser is fully realized.
At the apex of his sexual violence, David compels intercourse off screen and later assaults Nicole in a public restroom. “You got to listen to me, Nicole…You got to use the one thing you have that can hear the real me…It’s here,” he says thrusting his hand up her skirt. “You know it. I know it. Your daddy knows it. Everybody knows it. That’s why they’re trying to keep us apart.”
Nicole realizes the daughter’s true protector has been her father (William Peterson) all along. And her mistake was thinking she could replace him. Or rather, the mistake was letting David in to begin with. Before, Nicole had worn a necklace with the words “Daddy’s Girl.” After David’s arrival, daddy is left picking up condom wrappers off her bedroom floor, a metaphor for the latent threat boyfriends pose to the domestic space. David seemed innocuous, even appealing, but so is a Trojan horse. Nicole articulates her frustration: “Everyone says one thing and then does another.” David is an interloper to the inner sanctum of the family, and vagina and home meld in other interesting ways.
“I grew up in a lot of different places,” David says. “You know what they all have in common, Gary? Weak walls. Actually that’s why they moved me around so much. I’d pound on a wall. It’d break…There’s always walls. Usually moist, fleshy kind…They only need to be knocked down.”
Nicole’s body may have been penetrated, but at the conclusion of the film, when the house her father has literally built and designed is the only thing that stands between her and David, the rescue fiction of marriage has become simply that. The daughter should never have given access to her body—and least of all the access codes to the family home.
Near the end, David exploits these codes to gain access once more. He gets ready to shoot the patriarch, saying it is time for Nicole to help the father give away the daughter. “It’s okay,” he says. “All girls cry at their weddings.” Luckily, Nicole will never have to experience life with David, the maniac. Father ousts boyfriend, as David, who used to tear down the walls of foster homes, now smashes glass with his own body. Nicole’s father has thrown him out the window. David dies, day breaks, and everything can return to normal.
To young female viewers like myself in the mid 90’s, the message is both feminist and conservative: guys are not the solution to young girls’ problems; in fact, boyfriends might actually be the problem; so enjoy the security of your father’s home while you can.
Michelle Mastro is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington’s English PhD program. She studies the development of the novel (loves the Gothic) and never tires of reading Dickens or Wilkie Collins—believe it or not. But most of all, she adores horror films!