[Movie Review] FEAR THE NIGHT

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, FEAR THE NIGHT being covered here wouldn’t exist.

At their most striking, Neil LaBute’s films are like obsidian: sharp, brittle, and pitch black. But very little of that style is evident in his new thriller FEAR THE NIGHT. A serviceable but ultimately forgettable home invasion story, the film rests primarily on the shoulders of its star Maggie Q. She can always be counted on to elevate any project she’s in, but she deserves more roles where she doesn’t have to do that kind of heavy lifting. FEAR THE NIGHT leaves her stranded, refusing to go far enough with its ideas to leave a lasting impression.

Q plays Tes, an Iraq war veteran dealing with alcoholism and family strife at her sister’s bachelorette party. Q is always a captivating screen presence, and her portrayal of Tes is no exception: she plays the character with hidden reserves of strength, humor, and intelligence that keep your eyes glued to the screen to see what she does next. When armed men attack the remote farmhouse where the party is being held, Tes must lead the women and try to make sure they all survive the night.

It’s an ostensibly queer and feminist story — several (if not all) of the women are queer, with queer relationships playing a far more important role than heteronormative ones. But all of the relationships feel perfunctory, including the strained bond between Tes and her other sister Mia (Kat Foster), which provides most of the film’s tension leading up to the farmhouse attack.

LaBute’s influence

Given LaBute’s reputation (Google his name and the three adjectives that pop up the most frequently are “cynical,” “misanthropic,” and “misogynist”), ascribing feminist intent may seem a fool’s errand. The women band together to fight off the men, and the dialogue pays lip service to the gender dynamics at play during the attack — Noelle (Ito Aghayere) gives voice to the very real fear that she and her friends will be raped, and the men’s dialogue later validates that fear in no uncertain terms. But there’s a queasy hollowness to the film’s brand of female empowerment that makes the omnipresent fear of sexual violence disturbing in a way that feels exploitative and cruel rather than simply true-to-life.

It’s ironic, then, that FEAR THE NIGHT is at its best when it leans into LaBute’s twisted sense of humor. A violent home invasion story unfolding with a “SAME PENIS FOREVER” banner hanging in the background is wryly funny, as is the ruthless and immediate death of a character who steps up to save the day. These moments are few and far between, though. There is little in the way of suspense or riveting action, and LaBute can’t quite match his own sensibilities with the mash-up of You’re Next and Revenge that he seems to be aiming for.

Many horror fans likely know LaBute from his remake of The Wicker Man, which is an experience that no amount of screaming Nicolas Cage gifs can truly prepare you for. To me, however, LaBute will always be the writer-director responsible for In the Company of Men, an exploration of gender politics that made a lasting (and nauseating) impression on me at age 14. The biggest shock in FEAR THE NIGHT came, not from anything that happened on screen, but from my decision at about the hour mark to pause the film and look up the name of its writer.

FEAR THE NIGHT barely explores the surface

Mia (Gia Crovatin) is planning to make a run for it, and she asks the other women if anyone has a hair tie. It immediately reminded me of a similar moment in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) cheerfully offers Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett) a hair tie during a fight. At the time, many female critics pointed to that small beat as an example of the lived-in authenticity you get when a female writer and director (Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan, respectively) helm a movie about female superheroes.

But it feels jarring and, once again, perfunctory in FEAR THE NIGHT, as if the script were trying to hit a quota of Genuine Female Experiences™ rather than presenting fully realized characters. So I paused to see who had written it, and to my shock, LaBute’s name popped up.

His film makes overtures toward being queer and feminist in nature, but it never commits. Likewise, it starts to explore an intriguing idea that has always nagged me about stories like this, but it backs away before it actually does anything interesting. The film tiptoes up to the fear that most women (especially women of color like Tes and Noelle) would have in situations like this: will the police believe my story when I have to explain what happened? Will they recognize that I am a victim who needs protection and support, or will I be unfairly punished for defending myself? Unfortunately, FEAR THE NIGHT is content merely to acknowledge the existence of such agonizing questions without offering anything else in the way of commentary or narrative.

Shallow and unsatisfying, FEAR THE NIGHT is an adequate home invasion thriller that could have been so much more. With a magnetic lead in Maggie Q and fascinating questions on its mind, LaBute’s film has the potential to be a tight genre exercise that delves into issues of gender, sexuality, violence, and power. But it turns away from interesting choices at every turn, leaving a generic, half-baked thriller behind.

FEAR THE NIGHT is now in theaters and available on demand and Digital.

Jessica Scott
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