“Fever” is a well-made but rather unsatisfying film which tries to mirror the power and persuasion of classic psychological thrillers but only serves as a window where the audience can see the obvious influences of better movies.
Writer-director Alex Winter centers “Fever” in a dreadful Brooklyn tenement which is home to Nick, a struggling and mentally fragile artist whose life is hitting rock bottom: his meager employment as a drawing instructor is facing termination, his art is not selling, his phone is disconnected thanks to lack of phone bill payments and his wealthy family is driving him crazywith their faux-concern. One morning, Nick awakes to learn that his Polish landlord has been brutally murdered, most likely by a foul-mouthed neighbor who was evicted the night before. But Nick suspects a creepy lodger in an upstairs apartment might be the real culprit. Unfortunately, Nick’s seriously weakened physical and mental health leaves him with hallucinations and he is soon tottering on the verge of a breakdown, which leads the police to wonder if he had a role in the landlord’s murder.
On paper, “Fever” reads like a great film. Unfortunately, filmmaker Winter goes overboard in making the film as artsy as possible. The film’s press kit cites his inspiration in classic films including Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and Cocteau’s “Orpheus” (and the casual observer will spot sequences obviously inspired by “Nosferatu,” “The Night of the Hunter” and the Welles version of “The Trial”), but Winter winds up suffocating his production with an excess of heavy style. The film is overstuffed with tilted angle shots, thick shadows, ghastly beams of light and an ominous score which screams dread with each chord. “Fever” is so weighed down in the director’s artistic barnacles that it often runs like a take-off on thrillers rather than a genuine heart-thumper.
But the main problem here is the casting of Henry Thomas as the troubled Nick. Thomas is a very talented actor, but his interpretation of an unstable artist fighting physical and emotional collapse comes across like a bad impersonation of Anthony Perkins during the late stage of his career when he was reduced to self-parody in films like “Psycho 2” or “Psycho 3.” Unloading a warehouse full of ticks and gestures meant to signal a fraying mind and soul, poor Thomas is stuck in a mannered performance which never strikes a genuine sense of inner danger.
To its credit, “Fever” is a handsomely produced film. Special mention is deserving of cinematographer Joe DeSalvo and editor Thom Zimny for recalling the style of great thrillers from the past. There are also fun supporting performances by Teri Hatcher, playing far against type as Nick’s posh-bitch sister, and veteran actor/director Bill Duke as a stoic detective whose wonderful deadpan look is deserving of a film to itself. And to its credit, the film never hits the obvious by putting the Peggy Lee tune “Fever” on its soundtrack. But “Fever” nonetheless fails to raise temperatures and it ultimately leaves the viewer seeking an antidote in better films.