Naked Fear (2007) **½
I swear I’m going to review a normative example of the captivity-and-torment school of horror movies that has been so much in vogue during the past decade one of these days. For now, however, you’re going to have to content yourself with reading about yet another freakish oddity on the margins of the genre. What makes Naked Fear unusual is its enthusiastic embrace of one of the oldest and proudest traditions of horror on the big screen. Simply put, it’s The Most Dangerous Game by way of Hostel and I Spit on Your Grave, with just a touch of Ms. .45 tacked on at the end. I love a good “Hounds of Zaroff” copy, and even an overall decent one like this can win a disproportionate amount of my affection if it plays its cards right. Naked Fear plays my favorite card in the whole deck. At a time when it has become fashionable to say you’re making an exploitation movie according to the sensibility of the ‘68-‘84 glory years, director Thom Eberhardt and writer Christine Vasquez have actually done it.
The first thing we see is a patch of New Mexico wilderness so beautiful that it almost makes me want to move out there. The second thing we see is a blonde woman (Sonja Ruhar) who is roaming around in said wilderness buck naked; she does not appear pleased with this state of affairs. That’s quite understandable, especially since the third thing we see is a camouflage-clad man shooting her down with a low-powered crossbow. The weapon lacks the pull to kill anything much bigger than a fox cleanly, but the quarrel in the woman’s back does incapacitate her thoroughly enough for the hunter to catch up to her, snatch away the piece of jewelry that was all she’d been wearing, and finish her off with a pistol shot, mafia execution-style.
Next, we meet a couple of newcomers to Santa Paula, New Mexico, the nearest town to the site of the foregoing scene. One of these is Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Terry (Arron Shiver). Dwight and his wife, Karlie (Jenny Marlowe), are city-dwellers by temperament, but when Dwight was a traffic cop in California, he made the mistake of trying to bust a powerful local politician for a fatal hit-and-run accident. By the time his well-connected collar was finished raising hell, no police department nearer to hand than this remote sagebrush hamlet would have him. Karlie is even less happy about that turn of events than her husband, although she tries hard to keep her resentment under wraps. Still, Dwight feels he might be able to do some good in his new home, for Santa Paula curiously has one of the highest rates of unexplained disappearances among young women in the entire country— this in a region that has a strong demographic imbalance in favor of males in the first place. Although the local police seem relatively incurious about their community’s unfortunate point of distinction, Dwight finds it inspiring to think that he has a genuine mystery to solve.
The other recent transplant is a girl from Texas by the name of Diana Kepler (Danielle De Luca, from Queen Cobra and The Curse of Lizzie Borden). Diana won a dancing contest at a bar back home, and its organizer, Fred Lakehorn (Mel MacKaron), has hired her to perform at Clark’s, the Santa Paula bar for which he serves as entertainment agent. One assumes that Lakehorn sets up similar competitions at skeezy dives all over the Southwest. Diana seems to think she’s about to begin starring in her own real-life version of Coyote Ugly, but the truth is that Clark’s is just a seedy topless bar and de facto whorehouse. Furthermore, the terms of Diana’s “contract” with Fred fall somewhere between indentured servitude and white slavery— it’s the old story where everything from bus-fare into New Mexico to “rental” of the Clark’s stage is computed as an advance against future earnings subject to a usurious interest formula, and Diana won’t be getting her driver’s license back from Fred until she’s paid off her “debts” in full. It’s all a very effective way for Lakehorn to push his dancers into prostitution while preserving deniability for his own involvement, for while he certainly doesn’t require the girls he hires to turn tricks or to violate the letter of the bar’s entertainment license by giving the customers the full Monty onstage, there’s very little prospect of them ever working off their obligations to him otherwise. Diana has it all laid out for her by her heroin-addicted new roommate, Rita (Lisa Hill), when Fred drops her off at the fleapit motel owned by his brother-in-law, which is where he boards all of his girls. (And you’d better believe there’s a line-item for that in Lakehorn’s debt ledger, too.) She phones her parents just as soon as she’s figured out what she’s gotten herself into, but Mom and Dad either have no money to wire her, or have picked an absolutely brilliant time to try the Tough Love approach.
Diana’s and the Terrys’ paths cross briefly on the girl’s first day in Santa Paula. Sheriff Tom Benike (Thinner’s Joe Mantegna) is showing the new deputy around town when he catches sight of Lakehorn’s Continental Mk V heading downtown from the vicinity of the bus station, and notices that there’s someone else in the front seat with him. Benike pulls him over on a trumped-up moving violation, but what he’s really after is a chance to catch Fred transporting a minor across state lines. That would give him solid grounds to close Clark’s down at last, and to put Santa Paula’s slippery arch-pimp in jail where he belongs. 23 is above even the most rigorous definition of age of majority, however, and Tom is forced to let Fred go on about his business. Still, Diana would almost certainly be better off if she really had been the teenager for which the sheriff wishfully mistook her, all things considered.
There is one diversion available in Santa Paula that’s even more popular among the local men than getting drunk and tossing dollar bills at the dancers at Clark’s. Given that this is a Southwestern range town, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of mostly unspoiled countryside, it’s only to be expected that just about everybody in it would have a huge hard-on for hunting. Dwight used to like shooting the occasional rabbit before he got married to the aggressively animal-loving Karlie, and Tom hopes to use that as an in-route for the Terrys to the social life of the town. He offers to take Dwight out to the hills one day himself, but more importantly, he introduces the new deputy to Colin Mandel (J. D. Garfield), owner of the local diner and Santa Paula’s very own Trader Horn. Mandel is far and away the most accomplished big-game hunter in these parts, and he regards the hunt as much more than just a sport or a hobby. For him, it’s practically a way of life— maybe even a philosophy. Karlie takes an instant dislike to him, and even Dwight thinks he’s a little weird, but Colin is one of the most respected figures in town. Cultivating a friendship with him is therefore probably the smart thing to do.
You know what isn’t a smart thing to do, though? Letting Mandel pick you up for an evening together if you’re a good-looking young woman. Tom Benike stubbornly refuses to put the pieces together (and he’ll stubbornly refuse to listen when Dwight Terry starts putting them together for him later on), but an awfully large number of the pretty, female transients who habitually disappear without a trace from Santa Paula did so immediately after climbing into Colin’s Jeep Wagoneer outside of Clark’s. So would you care to guess whom Diana picks to be her very first john when she finally decides that getting out from under Lakehorn’s domination means more to her than her self-respect? She tries to back out of the deal halfway through the ride to Mandel’s house, but when he stops the truck ostensibly to let her out, he chloroforms her instead as soon as she turns her back to him. When Diana comes to the next morning, she’s lying in a scrubby field between two ridges of rocky hills, who knows how many miles from nowhere, and the only thing she’s wearing is her gaudy silver-and-turquoise necklace. She’s just a tiny bit luckier than some of Mandel’s previous victims, in that she has in Rita at least one person who’ll notice and become concerned about her absence, but then we’ve already seen how much interest Benike and his cops take in girls who go missing. Terry might be willing to hear Rita out, but he got burned pretty badly the last time he went gunning for a civic luminary. As a practical matter, Diana had better just hope that she’s tougher, smarter, and more resourceful than all the other women whose jewelry fills up the locked trophy chest in Mandel’s den.
There’s about 40% of the perfect grindhouse Most Dangerous Game retread in Naked Fear. Everything relating to the desperately unequal battle between Diana and Mandel is terrific. J. D. Garfield makes Mandel credible both as a modern, American Count Zaroff and as an outwardly respectable man whose neighbors would never suspect him of being a serial killer. Danielle De Luca is even better, deserving to stand alongside Marilyn Burns and Camille Keaton in the hall of fame for inexperienced actresses who deliver commanding performances in roles that give every appearance of putting them through sheer hell. De Luca conveys the terror of Diana’s situation so persuasively it can actually distract your attention from the fact that she spends the movie’s whole midsection fully nude— I mean, seriously, let’s see some exhibitionist scream queen on the Michelle Bauer model match that! Props are due also to Thom Eberhardt for keeping the big chase tautly suspenseful, no matter how often it gets put on hold so that we can watch Dwight and Rita labor to convince anybody that something untoward is going on in Santa Paula. Eberhardt is a long way from the harmless teen horror of Night of the Comet here, and I never would have guessed that he had anything this abrasive in him. Finally, Christine Vasquez deserves special commendation for turning something that could have been fatal to Naked Fear— the proximity of Mandel’s hunting ground to civilization— to the movie’s advantage instead. Partly she does this by making an ingenious red herring of the place that hunting holds in the culture of Santa Paula; we spend much of the running time wondering if maybe everybody in town isn’t in on Colin’s secret. But more importantly, Vasquez raises the stakes by occasionally embroiling innocent bystanders in Colin and Diana’s duel. Rescue is always a possibility with all the hunting that goes on in those hills, but so are collateral casualties among people who are only trying to help.
Unfortunately, Naked Fear contains a great deal of footage that does not concern the central clash, and most of it is extremely tiresome. Among the supporting cast, only Joe Mantegna displays any sign of real acting ability, and Vasquez’s uniformly terrible dialogue exacerbates that problem. The first act drags badly, and owes far too much to Showgirls for any movie’s good. Were it not for the opening teaser concerning the blonde victim, there would be next to no indication of where Naked Fear was going until some half an hour into the film. Impatient viewers are apt to give up long before they get to the good stuff. And while I can easily understand Vasquez’s reasons for ending the story the way she did (by which I mean the whole chain of events that begins when Diana finally gains the upper hand, and not just the Ms. .45-like epilogue), it still makes for a frustratingly diffuse wrap-up. Naked Fear appears to be Vasquez’s first produced screenplay. On the strength of its best scenes, I wouldn’t hesitate to nominate her as a writer to look out for in the future, but she has a lot of work yet to do in order to live up to her potential.