A nervous couple drives around in circles, growing increasingly convinced that something is out to get them, until the whole situation runs out of gas in stylish British chiller “In Fear.” Effectively unsettling for as long as auds don’t know what’s going on — in part because the actors didn’t, either — Jeremy Lovering’s tense debut might have worked better had it left more to the imagination. Still, crisp camerawork and amplified sound yield paranoia aplenty in this sharp-looking Sundance midnight movie, making it hard to imagine another director getting anywhere near this much mileage out of three actors and a car.
Lucy (Alice Englert) and Tom (Iain De Caestecker) have been dating for just two weeks when their relationship is put to the test. As they leave the pub headed for a remote music festival, Tom springs a surprise, revealing that he’s booked a room at a remote country hotel for the night. A Range Rover points the way but leaves the pair at a locked gate, beyond which lies a fork that doesn’t match the instructions they were given online.
From the characters’ point of view, this is a minor inconvenience, sending them around in circles as they try to follow the confusing and sometimes contradictory signs that point the way to the hotel. From the film’s vantage, however, it’s life or death, as dramatic angles and agitated music convey that something sinister is playing games with them.
To get the reactions he wanted, Lovering shot the film in sequence, parsing out instructions to his actors as they went. That way, Englert and De Caestecker never knew where the story was headed, relying on improvisation rather than a traditional script to guide their interactions. For some reason, their characters seem oddly un-curious about one another, avoiding the sort of get-to-know-you conversation that might have helped auds root for their survival.
In theory, Lovering’s approach would have made “In Fear” all the scarier, suggesting any number of dastardly possibilities as to what’s antagonizing them. Instead, the two actors don’t know what to be afraid of, which calls for a kind of all-purpose dread that doesn’t necessarily translate to the audience. Lucy naturally wants to explain what’s happening to them, so she begins to pry about their earlier visit to the pub — namely, what happened while she left Tom to use the bathroom.
But “In Fear” introduces a more sinister theory from the outset: While on the john, Lucy notices a creepy bit of graffiti that reads, “If a man hunts an innocent person, the evil will fall back on him and the fool will be destroyed,” and adds a personal touch: “Or not.” Unbeknownst to her, someone has been spying through a peephole — the sort of anxiety-escalating detail Lovering repeatedly gives the audience but denies his characters.
Though Tom and Lucy are essentially confined to their car, the camera can freely move anywhere, allowing the film to fall back on the old trick whereby it eavesdrops from behind bushes or, in a couple startling instances, setups where auds can see a silhouette stalking them from the side of the road. If the object was to get inside Lucy’s head, however, these tactics break the rules, as does a score that leans too heavily on the lower end of an electric organ each time something ominous happens.
The cast includes only one other character, Max (Allen Leech), a local whom the couple rescue while trying to escape whatever’s menacing them. His arrival escalates things in the plot, but it ironically makes the pic seem smaller. Until his arrival, “In Fear” demonstrates how the power of suggestion can be a frightening thing in its own right. Or not.