An Ode to 'Fear,' Mark Wahlberg's Batshit 1996 Teen Thriller

Fear - Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon Movie
Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

The movie Fear, in which Mark Wahlberg does hand sex to Reese Witherspoon on a roller coaster, turns 20 this month. Expectations were low for this teen Fatal Attraction knockoff, which co-starred a former child actress who dropped out of Stanford and an ex-rapper/underwear model whose only talent was hurling racial epithets.

Reviews were bad. TheNew York Times described Wahlberg as "pug-faced" and Witherspoon as a "restless teenager who looks like Alicia Silverstone's sulky younger sister," and the film as "indistinguishable from any other grade-C slicer and dicer." USA Todaycalled it an "overblown predictable snicker-fest." And my mom called it "a movie you are not allowed to see in the theater."

Yet Fear was a sleeper hit. It made a tidy profit, launched both of its leads into unfathomable stardom, and wedged itself on the middle shelf of '90s intimacy thrillers. In honor of its 20th anniversary, I rewatched Fear four times over the course of one 24-hour iTunes rental period. I wanted to remember what it was about this film that made it such a cult hit. How did it hold up? And what actually went down on that roller coaster?

click to play video
<strong>Fear |</strong> Universal

It's a fantastic 1990s time capsule

One of the things I’d forgotten is that the film takes place in Seattle during the mid-'90s, when grunge was at its peak, a year after Kurt Cobain's suicide. You get a true sense of what LA filmmakers thought that world looked like in one of the first scenes, in which Witherspoon (who looks so young), her caricature of a slutty friend (played by Alyssa Milano), and their '90s L.L.Bean fleece-loving, nice-guy friend Gary ditch school to grab lunch at a pool hall full of people with killer facial hair, baggy flannels, and Chris Cornell’s beeper number.

Among those bearded Soundgarden lovers is clean-shaven, tight-shirted Marky Mark, who creepily stares at Witherspoon as Milano orders the sluttiest thing on the menu (chocolate cake) and gets a flier for a rave in a bad part of town. Alyssa wants to go, of course, because you could publicly have sex in bad parts of Seattle in the '90s, but Reese can't because she’s got plans with her pops. 

The script may have been written by a teenage girl's crazy dad

Speaking of which, the movie depicts Witherspoon’s father (William Petersen, aka CSI’s Gil Grissom) as a workaholic architect trying to balance the creation of several badly rendered Sim Cities with maintaining his second marriage and caring for Witherspoon and his stepson. The guy seems like he has it all (cool old car! Million-dollar house with ridiculous pool! The ability to run fast in the woods!) but also, of course, has nothing, because his daughter is losing her virginity to a 20-year-old murderer. 

But anyway, in this particular instance, he has to bail on Reese and take a client to dinner in Vancouver, so Witherspoon goes to the rave. You can tell it's a progressive '90s Seattle rave because they show gay guys making out. Alyssa starts making out with Marky Mark’s bearded friend, then a riot somehow breaks out and everyone starts fighting each other. I can't emphasize how random this riot is. It almost seems like the cast of Fear accidentally stumbled onto the set of another movie's battle scene.

mark wahlberg reese witherspoon fear
<strong>Fear | </strong>Universal

There's lots of clock tomfoolery

To illustrate chaos, a guy in a winter hat jumps onto one of the giant light fixtures and brings it crashing down, so it catches fire. Marky Mark and Reese go to the roof, and because he’s "street," he knows how to climb down fire escapes. Safely out of the riot, they go to a lake, then Marky Mark moves the time on her watch, as if that can somehow affect her curfew. She is impressed by his ability to alter the time-space continuum, so they make out. 

No surprise, this is not the only clock-related mischief Wahlberg commits. In one of the weirdest scenes in a film chock-full of them, Marky has come over to Reese’s house to meet her family, and he walks into CSI Gil's office when looking for the bathroom. Alyssa Milano also comes into the room, to flirt with Gil -- but the writer was worried people wouldn't understand that she's the slutty friend, so she bends over while wearing the shortest skirt known to man and begs Gil to come out with them. Marky, who has been watching all of this with a creepy smile on his face, uses this opportunity to mess with Gil's clock, too. The dude is a total fucking clock trickster, the Loki of time management. 

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<strong>Fear | </strong>Universal

They do hand sex on a roller coaster

Just as your mind is trying to wrap around all this clock mischief, it's time for the infamous roller coaster scene. Burgeoning filmmakers: if you want to make a movie become the talk of a third-period Phys Ed class, take notes. First off, a girl-band version of "Wild Horses" is playing. Then Reese puts Marky's hand where she wants it while they're going up the roller coaster. So, you know, shit is building up. And as they’re going down, it's like... a release, or something? Even if you're in 10th grade and getting B-pluses in English, you can recognize that THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR AN ORGASM. 

Oh, also: somehow, because of Marky Mark’s clock shenanigans, CSI Gil Grissom has to go out of town to save his marriage, so Reese tells Mark to come over. But he's like, "Sorry, I'm with the boys, and we've got to murder a bunch of people and page Chris Cornell, but I can stop by later." So she gives him the house's keypad code, which definitely won't come into play later. After entering the house as she sleeps, he takes her bracelet with the words "Daddy's Girl" engraved on it, and then they do sex. In case you're keeping track at home, this is the teenage-girl's-dad's-nightmare part. 

mark wahlberg abs fear
<strong>Fear | </strong>Universal

Don't mess with Marky Mark

At this point, the movie pivots quite dramatically. You can blame the beginning of this shift on Nice Gary, Reese’s L.L.Bean fleece-wearing friend, who has the audacity to give her a hug goodbye at school. Marky sees this, and beats the shit out of him -- and hits Reese, too, and now she's got a black eye and is somewhat pissed at Marky Mark, who genuinely can't understand why she's upset that he nearly stomped her friend to death and bruised her face.  

One of the reasons Mark Wahlberg is so good in this movie (and I mean that sincerely -- he's creepily perfect), is because you believe that this is exactly how Mark Wahlberg acted in real life when he was 18. Remember that Wahlberg's teen years involved a gang, an attempted-murder charge, and a felony assault conviction that he's still trying to get overturned in Massachusetts. Everything Wahlberg says in the film sounds authentic, and that makes it even more terrifying. 

Take, for instance, another iconic scene, which takes place after Dr. Gil calls his CSI buddies and they check up on Mark Squared and realize he's been in jail for most of his life. Both Mark and Gil are in their old, refurbished cool cars and get out to confront each other. Gil is like, "You can't see my daughter anymore," and here is exactly what happens next: 

Marky Mark: You know, Steve, you're really not a faggot.
CSI Gil: ... What?
MM: No, I'm serious. You seem like a pretty solid guy; you should lighten up on yourself.
CSI: We're not talkin' about me, we're talkin'...
MM: Yes, we are. That's what this whole thing's about, Steve. Your inadequacies. Your fears.
CSI: You just wait a minute...
MM: Listen to me. See, I'm hip to your problems. All of 'em. I know you abandoned Nicole when she needed you most... 'cause I licked her sweet tears. I know about things comin' apart at work. Maybe you fuckin' lost it in that department. I also know you ain't keepin' up, so to speak, your end of the bargain with the missus. 'Cause if you were, she wouldn't be all over my stick. Relax, Steve. We're friends. We're practically family.
CSI: I want you to understand somethin', pal. If you don't disappear from my family's life, I'm gonna rip your balls off and shove 'em so far up your ass they'll come out your fuckin' mouth! You got that, my friend? 

The way Wahlberg delivers those lines, it’s just... holy shit, I kind of think he might’ve cribbed it from a toast he gave at one of his buddies' parole parties. CSI Gil, to be fair, gives it his all with his last line, and I think the director wants you to feel like it was nearly a draw, but it isn't a draw. Marky Mark puts CSI Gil in a pot with cream, clams, potatoes, onions, and at least one bay leaf, and chowders the shit out of him. And as the oyster crackers on top, this is the exact point when Marky does that hitting-himself thing Matty McConaughey also does in Wolf of Wall Street, but harder, then tells Reese her pops hit him! And who even knows what he’s doing with the clocks! 

mark wahlberg fear
<strong>Fear | </strong>Universal

The rest of the movie is an insane person's fever dream

Reese goes back to Marky Mark because she thinks her dad beat him up, but then goes over to his house late one night and -- I'm not joking -- Alyssa is doing sex with Marky Mark’s friend right in the open while he smokes crack, then Marky forces Alyssa to go with him in a terrifying, rapey way, and man, a lot of stuff happens in front of windows, and Reese is crying, and she goes home to find her dad asleep, waiting with the phone in his lap, because this is the '90s and you could only call people on corded phones. 

Other batshit stuff keeps happening. Reese won't talk to Marky Mark, so he does all sorts of shit, including trying to run Alyssa off the road and giving himself a prison tattoo that says "Nicole 4 Eva" on his chest. He murders Nice Gary, possibly for repeatedly wearing that one fleece, breaks CSI Gil's red Mustang, and leaves a note about popping both his cherries. Reese's dad takes this opportunity to go to Marky's weird crack den, where he finds a crazy-ass shrine of Mark and Reese, which is like the '90s insane person's version of a Pinterest board. CSI Gil trashes the crack den, which is just an excuse for the filmmakers to get MM’s crazy friends involved in the rapidly unraveling plot. 

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<strong>Fear | </strong>Universal

The finale is a random checklist of implausible events

Naturally, everyone smokes crack and then goes to attack CSI Gil's fancy house, which includes cutting off the family dog's head and dropping it in the dog door. Reese lets her dad know that Marky Mark has the code to the house, and Marky gives his epic "LET ME IN THE HOUSE" speech, which is like Home Alone, but more aggressive.

Perhaps the most random part of this whole movie is the heroism of the 9-year-old stepbrother, who basically goes from having a panic attack to escaping, calling 911 on the car phone (!), getting the handcuff keys from the dead security guard, and unlocking CSI Gil right as Marky Mark says, "Daddy, you will forever hold your peace." Reese stabs him with a FUCKING CLOCK in the back (just kidding -- it was, like, a peace pipe, but can you imagine?!), and then CSI Gil throws the former rapper/modeler out the window. The movie just ends right there, no joke.

After rewatching, I would love to say that Fear is seriously underrated, or that it has this deeper layer of meaning that everyone originally missed, but in the end, it's just like Boiler Room: three or four memorable, quotable scenes, but there's not much you can do when those scenes are sitting in the first-class section of a train wreck.  

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large, and is a little upset he never made his own tattoos. Let him in the house: @KAlexander03