Jeremy Lovering’s dark psychological thriller explores the human capacity for violence, our primal phobia of the dark, and the notion of truth versus fiction.
You’re driving through the countryside, poorly printed map in hand, with your phone and GPS signals dead, when you meet an unexpected fork in the road; we’ve all been there – that split second of sheer panic which submerges you entirely before you recognise your irrationality and it vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Then again, imagine if that moment of paralysing fear wasn’t short lived but instead lasted hour upon hour as the ordeal continued.
This is the experience of Jeremy Lovering’s first feature film, In Fear, which follows the never-ending nightmare of a young couple lost in the forests of the Irish countryside. Having met just two weeks earlier, Lucy (Alice Englert) and Tom (Iain De Caestecker) are innocently heading to a music festival. After stopping at a rural pub, Tom reveals that he has booked a hotel as a romantic surprise, however his directions appear to be sending them around in circles. As night draws in and unnerving events begin to occur, it seems that it is not Tom’s map that is misleading them, but a darker force: a disturbed individual with a vendetta against these two naive lovebirds. What happened in that pub? Why are they being followed? Who is the man in the mask? These questions plague protagonists and audience alike.
Although In Fear is a deeply complex examination of human fear and our innate aggression, the bones of the film were devised in just a few hours. Director Lovering was visiting a part of Ireland marked with 400 years of violent clan history; lost, with no signal and his map unclear, he followed the signs until it became dark and he realised that he was going in circles. When he stopped at a nearby pub, the landlord jovially explained that there was a longstanding joke whereby the locals would flip the signs around to send unwitting tourists in a never-ending loop; the publican’s son then hopped into his Land Rover and showed him the correct route. This particular case may have been a harmless joke, but as the director blindly followed a stranger’s truck through unknown terrain, he began to imagine alternate conclusions to his situation. “The initial event was fairly benign”, Lovering states, however “it was a good jumping-off point – how do you trap someone, and what does it take to provoke someone to violence?” This question dominates In Fear, whose characters are young innocents forced to make horrific decisions. The main cast is three-strong: Alice Englert plays the assertive Lucy; Iain De Caesteker is the gentle Tom (unwillingly turned alpha male); and Allen Leech takes on the role of the manipulative tormentor, Max.
Taken from actual events, and addressing the very real idea of fear as a driving force, it was essential that this film remained authentic – “it had to feel as real as possible,” Lovering affirms. To ensure that this was achieved, the director worked with his cast in a unique way: never providing a script, never revealing any forthcoming incidents, and withholding the film’s ending. Alice and Iain were thrown wholly into the positions of their characters, and blindly subjected to each terrifying plot-point as it came. The cast were at least given the saving grace of scene summaries, however these differed between members so that levels of on-set suspense were ever rising.
To further the validity (and also the unease), Lovering instructed actors Alice and Iain only to communicate with one another as Lucy and Tom; they spent two weeks going on “dates”, whose situations he would control to ensure that the multi-layered, emotionally flawed characters that he required were fully adopted. Although this method is intense, in lieu of a script it was vital that Iain and Alice lived and breathed their roles if they were to remain constantly in character.
When it came to filming, “I constantly lied to them”, Lovering remarks, “I would say ‘you’ll drive down this road and find a dead end, then you’ll stop and contemplate the situation’. They would drive down the road and there might be a dead end; or there might not be. They had no idea of when an event would happen.” Despite having been described as a horror movie, the turning points of In Fear are never gory or overblown; instead they are sinister and unnervingly believable.
This believability is clearly heightened by the fact that the actors always have genuine “fear in their performance” as they are always nervously awaiting the film’s climax. This innovative method of directing also taught the director himself about the nature of fear: “I realised that classic horror movie screaming just doesn’t happen in reality. In reality you stop; you have an instant reaction, then you have the analysis and the consequence. I always tried to use the cast’s initial reaction, which was utterly real.”
“We were very lucky; we never had to do a second take of a reaction as we always got the shot. We had three cameras rolling during each event and I would concentrate on the face of whoever I thought would have the most interesting reaction” – and these reactions are astounding, with Alice visibly stiff with anxiety throughout the film. Lovering recognises that his unique practice asked incredible professionalism and strength from his cast, however it was essential to the film’s success, as he explains, that the traditional method just wouldn’t cut it: “We had one scene which we had to re-shoot. The actors performed it as well as any acted scene could be, but when it came to editing and I saw it alongside the rest of the material, it just didn’t look right. This gave me the courage of my convictions.”
Ensuring that the cast remain ignorant acquaintances not only promotes authenticity, it also amplifies the emotional effect of the film: in establishing a short, shallow relationship between the two protagonists, Lovering is able to explore “issues of common humanity” rather than how we treat loved ones. Moreover, neither Tom, Lucy nor Max ever reference any detailed back story, so the conflicting statements between hero, heroine and even villain are equally unreliable; thus the ideas of right and wrong are open to argument.
Having the viewer empathetically identify with the performers is crucial in communicating Lovering’s belief that our “ultimate fault is that we are governed by fear”, and in asking audiences to contemplate the question which is the crux of this film: “How far will I be pushed to do something violent against another human being in order to protect myself?”
As an authentic exploration of human instinct, In Fear differs from more stereotypical horror movies – its plot is not overblown, it avoids the supernatural and violence is treated with caution: rather than indulge, these sharp instances of horror are limited to just a handful which, between them, sustain the anxious threat of aggression. This tension strengthens the film’s momentum, and makes each violent act poignant, significant and appalling, with the genuine “cost of violence” portrayed. There is never an opportunity for Lovering’s audience to become desensitised, and therefore In Fear’s violent acts are brought into reality, and shock with a nauseating force: “You leave the film aware of your own potential for violence, and the inevitability of violence within the human psyche.”
Meanwhile, In Fear challenges the ethics of both its characters and audience. Each starts out in the clear, yet after relentless moral questioning and teasing provocation, by the film’s close neither group is left innocent. Lovering explains that “people can choose between revenge or redemption,” and for Tom and Lucy this choice is practical, whilst the audience subconsciously also makes that decision. The screen blacks out with a cliffhanger, leading viewers to invent the conclusion, and consequently to realise the human likelihood to encourage violence. “You bring the way that you watch a film to the cinema”, the director explains, and, constructed to be highly subjective, In Fear ensures that each character and audience member is left equally guilty.
Director Lovering describes this film as “proper Greek tragedy”, and with the intense performances of Iain and Alice, it’s closer to theatre than any contemporary slasher movie. It is a study of fear so intimate that it comes close to voyeurism – so personal that it becomes uncomfortable, and so powerful that the audience is less watching than experiencing. In Fear is an innovation in filmmaking, and in a genre of its own. It will not have you screaming or weeping; instead, this film invokes real, silent, desperate fear and provokes a realisation that we are not as innocent as we might like to believe. In Fear is released in cinemas nationwide this November.