Fear: James Foley’s Thriller, Starring Mark Wahlberg and Reese Withersoon

A throwback to the psychological-sexual thrillers of the early 1990s, James Foley’s Fear is a “male version” of Fatal Attraction, with a strong measure of Scorsese’s Cape Fear thrown into the formulaic mix.

In his biggest screen role to date, former model Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark) plays the Glenn Close character: a sexy intruder who becomes obsessed with a naive, sexually yearning girl and in due course torments her entire family. Stylishly crafted suspenser doesn’t hold many surprises for those familiar with the genre, but grounded in reality and dealing with genuine familial anxieties, pic should register as a solid spring release for Universal, with more robust video possibilities.

In the opening scenes, scripter Christopher Crowe paints in brief strokes a portrait of a contempo family besieged by various tensions. The wonderful Reese Witherspoon plays Nicole Walker, an attractive teenager living with her architect father, Steve (William Petersen), stepmother Laura (Amy Brenneman) and stepbrother Toby (Christopher Gray). Naively romantic Nicole dreams of being swept away by that “special” man, one who’s both virile and sensitive. Her ideal seems to materialize in the figure of David (Wahlberg), a sexy charmer she meets at a “rave” party she attends with Margo (Alyssa Milano), her thrill-seeking best friend.

David courts Nicole in a polite, respectful manner–their initial encounters are quietly intimate and sexually charged in a tone that’s reminiscent of Treat Williams’ seduction of Laura Dern in Smooth Talk. With her parents conveniently out of town, Nicole gives David the alarm code and late one night, while she’s asleep, he enters into the house and consummates their relationship.

It doesn’t take long, however, for David to reveal his darker, psychotic side. Observing Nicole innocently hugging her classmate Gary (Todd Caldecott), David angrily slaps her and brutally beats Gary. All along, Nicole’s dad senses that something is wrong with David, who’s not in school and appears to have no past. He conducts an investigation which discloses that David is far from being the “Leave It to Beaver” kid he pretends to be. What follows is yet another variation of amour fou, underlined by such primal instincts as fixation and vengeance.

In the first hour, the story discerns perceptively tensions that might plague ordinary modern families: a father who’s ambiguous about his daughter’s inevitable independence, petrified she’ll get mixed up with the wrong guy; a sexually ripe daughter who needs to escape from her father’s clutches; latent competition between an attractive stepmother who’s not much older than her stepdaughter; macho rivalry between a sexually potent young man and an aging father, ragged by his own insecurities.

But after the initial segments, pic follows by-the-book the familiar path of its genre, with shrewdly if also predictably planted twists and turns. Problem is, thriller telegraphs most of its suspense payoffs and the audience is almost always ahead of the game.

What’s most disappointing is that the characters begin as well-etched individuals, but are gradually turned into mere plot functions. Worse yet, Fear shamelessly borrows from numerous thrillers of the last decade. Hence, Fatal Attraction’s scary roller coaster scene is repeated (though for a different purpose), and the cooked rabbit is replaced with a dog. And in a nod to Robert De Niro’s creepy sociopath in Cape Fear, David not only tattoos his chest, but tortures his victims with similarly terrifying brutality.

Bent on revenge when he’s forbideen to see Nicole, David and his hoodlum friends begin a deadly assault on the Walker family. In the explosive showdown, the Walkers, like movie families before them, must come together as a family to fight for their lives. The only surprise in the bloody finale is the more assertive role allotted to the women and children.

Witherspoon, who was so memorably touching in The Man in the Moon (in which she also played a girl falling in love with an older boy), inhabits the central role with such charming ease and credibility that young women will have no problem identifying with her.

She’s strongly supported by Wahlberg, who’s quite convincing as the gentleman caller from hell; Mylano, as an appealing youngster forced to betray her best friend; Petersen, as the career-oriented, eternally-worrying dad; and Brenneman, as the stepmother who’s also vulnerable to the alluring stranger.

Foley’s stylishly elegant direction is at least a notch above the material’s level. As he showed in Glengarry Glen Ross and other films, helmer is especially effective in imbuing ordinary human interactions with highly-charged emotional tensions. With the exception of the climax, which is too blatant and manipulative, Fear bears the polished sheen of any Imagine production, with strong contributions from Thomas Kloss’s alert and textured lensing and Alex McDowell’s vivid production design.