Grade: F

Merely bad movies are a dime a dozen; really atrocious lumps of celluloid sludge are altogether rarer. Here’s one of them–yet another failed attempt to make the internet the key to a terrifying horror thriller. Among such efforts “feardotcom” proves more ambitious but even less successful than the recent “Halloween Resurrection.” That movie, which broadcast a series of murders in an old house via the web, was undoubtedly formulaic and silly, but at least it was cheerfully chintzy and simpleminded. This flick, on the other hand, pretends to have something to say when it really doesn’t. It also tries to conjure up a mood of real menace and dread, but falls back on the most tired cliches–sharp jumps, sudden noises, grisly hallucinatory montages, odd camera angles, weird lighting, shifts into negative imagery, abrupt intrusions of threats into the frame–to do so. And in the end it’s a vile, incoherent mess.

It’s also a particularly dopey take (“X-Files” variety) on the buddy-movie, pairing Mike Riley (Stephen Dorff), the young cop whom the press notes inevitably describe as “brash,” with Terry Houston (Natascha McElhone), a studious but attractive Department of Health employee, to investigate a series of mysterious deaths: the victims all perished violently, their eyes bleeding and their faces stuck in grotesque grimaces, in seedy sections of New York City. (Actually, in this movie there don’t seem to be any other kind.) The common thread among the recently- deceased is that each met his end precisely forty-eight hours after logging on to the titular website, which hosts scenes of bondage, torture, mutilation and murder–you know, your typical AOL menu of delights (no pesky pop-ups, either). When Mike logs onto the site, his action begins a countdown that could lead either to the duo’s uncovering its secrets or to his demise. In the process, the investigation also brings them up against one of those brilliant serial killers remarkably prevalent in today’s fiction, both on page and on screen. In this case, he’s Alistair Pratt, also known as “The Doctor” (Stephen Rea) for his habit of doing unnecessary surgery on beautiful blondes without benefit of anesthetic, who, we later learn, has been toying with poor Riley for two years or so. (Mike must be an extremely incompetent fellow never to have discovered, in all that time, the apartment crammed with damning evidence or the chamber from which Doc broadcasts his apparently unending stream of slaughter).

It’s conceivable that such a scenario–based, we’re told, on an idea by producer Moshe Diamant (who’s also supposed to have come up with the story for the execrable 1999 Dennis Rodman spy flick “Simon Sez”)–could have been turned into something at least moderately scary, but Josephine Coyle has transformed it into a script with so many loose ends and inconsistencies that it’s a maddening job just trying to figure out what’s going on, let alone (given the poorly written characters, ludicrous dialogue, stiff acting and lapses in continuity) to care in the slightest. Elements that ought logically to come into play–Mike’s fear of germs, Pratt’s connection with the website–prove to be little more than red herrings, and when what are intended to be answers arrive, they’re models of implausibility. Director William Malone strives to camouflage the nonsensical nature of events with lots of camera and lighting tricks, but succeeds only in confusing matters further; it once seemed impossible that he could make a movie worse than his dreadful 1999 remake of “House on Haunted Hill,” but he’s miraculously succeeded. Dorff, a talented young actor when given the chance, is wasted in his stock part, and McElhone fares no better; it’s Rea, however, who embarrasses himself most playing a weak version of Hannibal Lecter and apparently trying to imitate Brad Dourif, the king of cable trash, in the process (the high-pitched, nasal voice is particularly cruel). Perhaps buffs will get a kick out of seeing old friends like Udo Kier, Jeffrey Combs and Michael Sarrazin show up momentarily, but the brevity of their appearances is all the actors can be grateful for. Certainly the oddest aspect of the picture is that its gloomy scenes of urban decay were shot in Luxembourg; the dismal settings are reason enough to scratch that country from your vacation itinerary. Christian Sebaldt’s photography is unrelievedly dark and murky, bleached of virtually all color, and he shows an unhappy penchant for oppressive closeups in which every pore and birthmark is positively gigantic. The faces often look like topographical maps.

But what makes “feardotcom” completely contemptible is that it’s a scummy ripoff of David Cronenberg’s brilliant “Videodrome” (1983), despite its claim to be based on an original idea. The earlier film, of course, concerned a mysterious television signal rather than a website, and its protagonist wasn’t a cop, but the setup had a great deal in common with this flick. The big difference is that “Videodrome” was the work of a master filmmaker and a deeply challenging and disturbing tale, while “feardotcom” is a tawdry little exploitation picture made by hacks. DVD, anyone?