Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Director: Robert Hall
Writer: Aaron R. Drane, Robert Hall
Producer: Kevin Cain, George Alexandrou, Mark B. Johnson, Aaron R. Drane
Stars: Robert Englund, Fiona Dourif, Felisha Terrell, Cleopatra Coleman, Corey Taylor, Brandon Beemer, Bonnie Morgan, Kevin Gage, Angelina Armani, Thomas Dekker
A doctor specializing in phobia treatment creates a chamber that inadvertently opens a psychological gateway for manifestations of fear.
It’s been one year since Dr. Peter Andover pulled the plug on his controversial “fear chamber,” the key instrument in his radical program for treating phobias by forcing patients to face hallucinogenic manifestations of their deepest fears. Andover simply doesn’t have the stomach for it after patient Paige Peterson hallucinates herself into a permanent coma. But when Sara and several other former Fear Clinic patients inexplicably experience terrifying visions of their fears taking physical form, Andover and his staff have little choice but to reopen for business before everyone is consumed by their collective trauma.
“Fear Clinic” is the feature film extension of FEARnet’s 2009 online series of five webisodes lasting six minutes each. Robert Englund as Dr. Andover is the only actor/character who features in both the short series and the film. He still has two ex-cons working as orderlies and patients have a few of the same phobias, suggesting this is more of a conceptual reimagining rather than a straight sequel.
I would say this means that you have little to worry about if you’re going in without any knowledge of the webseries, except “Fear Clinic” is structured in such a weird way that you still feel as though you are missing key pieces of backstory. Truth be told, the reason I tracked down the webisodes after watching the movie was because I presumed they might fill in the blanks regarding holes in the feature film’s storyline. They didn’t.
A fear chamber forcing patients to face fantasized versions of fears made flesh is a slick idea for a “Dreamscape”-like premise. Except even though the characters of “Fear Clinic” suffer from different phobias, they all stem from the same incident. Instead of experiencing separate nightmares, the audience is only given a central one: a Columbine-style diner shootout that results in survivors being haunted by visions of the same masked gunman. The trauma gives one person a fear of the dark, another a fear of food, etc., but there is just this one event at the root of everyone’s issues.
Limiting the imaginative potential of the premise is only a minor disappointment. The highest hurdle the script slams into is instilling a sense that the audience is entering the story with act two already in progress.
One person is introduced as a minor celebrity on a fictional TV show, though the relevance of that fact is never explained. Various other characters converge on the clinic as the story unfolds and exchange knowing glances about their experiences from one year earlier. Some of them are actually only meeting for the first time, but the movie breezes through relationship establishment as though assuming the audience already knows who everyone is as well as how they connect to one another.
It’s not necessarily confusing; it just feels like pieces are left out. Odd editing transitions that jarringly jump between story threads only further that suspicion.
In one sequence, a patient named Caylee is frightened into uncontrollable hysterics after a fear chamber session goes haywire. Caylee’s immediate scene afterward features sex with her boyfriend Dylan, since that apparently makes sense as the best way to calm down after a year’s worth of trauma culminates in a lifelike hallucination. Caylee boots Dylan from her room when he refuses to choke her as hard as she demands during intercourse. Dylan grabs his clothes and bolts, but the next time we see either character is them standing next to each other back in that same room. “Fear Clinic” has either an inaccurate sense of staging, or a sloppy way of cobbling itself together into a coherent timeline.
“Fear Clinic” ensures automatic appeal to fright film fans by casting genre legend Robert Englund and Fiona Dourif as its two leads. Then the movie adds supporting players incapable of carrying the same weight with their performances.
Angelina Armani, whose roles in other films include Sexy Beach Girl, Pledge #1, Pretty Bank Hostage, and Hot Tub Girl (uncredited) has a lot to do as Caylee. Unfortunately, I’m afraid Ms. Armani was cast out of consideration for her looks first and her acting ability a distant second. Thomas Dekker is supposed to be a wounded war vet suffering from PTSD, yet he recites lines like he is playing a mentally stunted deaf person.
Nobody comes up short on this project more than makeup effects artists Robert Kurtzman and Steve Johnson. Kurtzman is of course the K in KNB. While his former partners Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger went on to develop their studio into Hollywood’s premier makeup FX lab, Kurtzman went a different direction in 2002 before ultimately returning to the FX field after an extended absence. Similarly, Steve Johnson worked prolifically throughout the 1980s and 1990s, racking up credits on notable franchises such as “The Howling,” “Night of the Demons,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” with “Fear Clinic” being only his sixth makeup-related credit since 1999.
Let’s just say that Kurtzman and Johnson lost a step during their respective sabbaticals, and have a fair distance to go before they are at the level their peers achieved in their absences. Every time Robert Englund appears in close-up, it is near impossible to not stare directly at the painfully prominent bald cap seam on his wig. It blends in about as well as charcoal against snow and bears a color different than Englund’s skin. I saw the film theatrically on a 60-foot screen, so maybe it doesn’t read as poorly on a VOD device or television, but the application looks atrociously amateur.
Just as shoddily designed is the fear chamber itself, whose gas mask is cracked in places it is not supposed to be and haphazardly lined with cement glue that doesn’t actually fill the gaps in the plastic. As part of the same apparatus, Englund wears a ridiculous contraption on his face that looks like a discarded prop from the set of “City of Lost Children,” found in a dumpster 20 years later and reused as is.
A human hybrid fear monster appearing during the climax has a cool design, but the remainder of the film’s visuals are embarrassingly bad. If the laughably animated digital spiders and cockroaches aren’t enough of a distraction, the movie digs itself deeper with clichéd staging like a lightning storm outside the spooky building, flickering interior lamps, and lights flashing Argento red and giallo green for no real reason.
If there are any lingering doubts about the pedestrian production of “Fear Clinic,” here are some choice dialogue snippets: Fiona Dourif is given one-liners like, “the fear clinic is open for business!” as if she is a Schwarzenegger action hero dispatching a jungle commando. Robert Englund does his elevated whisper with pregnant pauses to say, “things have been rather… trying around here lately” while drunk and disheveled, because there is no more unoriginal way to depict a down and out professional failure. For comic relief, a comment about a task being a challenge receives the retort of, “your f*cking momma is a challenge!” Really? “Your momma” quips?
I understand that co-star Corey Taylor is the lead singer of both Slipknot and Stone Sour, justifying inclusion of music from the latter band on the film’s soundtrack. But any 21st-century horror film still thinking it is hip to accompany end credits with a growling death metal track is out of touch with contemporary trends. “Fear Clinic” has an idea and a talent roster that are both capable of delivering more than they put on the screen here. With a slipshod approach to technical execution and corner-cutting screenwriting to splice together a story, “Fear Clinic” just can’t pull it itself together.
Review Score: 40