As soon as the Internet started being used by mainstream society, people began looking for ways to make it terrifying and dangerous. This led to such horrors as the hamster dance and GeoCities, as well as to the genre of movies about people being killed because of the Internet. Anytime something new comes along, we find a way for it to be deadly. It's one of our talents as a species.
Among these "Be afraid of the Internet" movies was ".com For Murder," a brazenly stupid thriller that manages to be even worse than its title suggests it is going to be. It was made in 2002, but its knowledge of the Internet is from 1994, and its familiarity with the basic devices of storytelling is from the early days of spoken human language.
We begin at a swanky, ultra-modern house in the Los Angeles hills, where a rich guy named Ben — played by Roger Daltrey from The Who, for some reason — lives with his wife, Sondra (Nastassja Kinski, no reason necessary). As he prepares to leave for something business-related, Ben tells Sondra, "It's a beautiful evening. Don't spend it surfing the Web!" That's the first line of dialogue in the movie. We understand that this is going to be one of those films where all the dialogue is directly related to the main topic (the Internet, in this case), with no casual conversations or character moments. Purely functional and on-point, like a catalog or an owner's manual.
Sondra and Ben's house is a high-tech dwelling in which even the most mundane tasks are controlled by a HAL-like central computer, which responds to voice commands and narrates every damn thing he does. "Misty has arrived. Open front door?" "Yes, open the door." "Front door opening. Misty has entered. Welcome, Misty. Front door closing." Sondra doesn't like the house because it's big, empty, cold and controlled by a omnipotent cyber-butler. But in addition to being inconvenient and impractical for the characters, the HAL arrangement is problematic for the movie because the fellow responsible for it, writer-director Nico Mastorakis, clearly doesn't know the first thing about computers. He was probably the sort of person who thought the CD tray was a cup holder in those late-'90s tech support urban legends. The best he can come up with to represent the complicated operations involved in controlling the central computer system is this conversation:
SONDRA: After the password, do I hit enter?
BEN: Yeah, hit the code. [She types the code.] Now hit enter.
Whoa, whoa, slow down, hackers!
Once Ben leaves, Sondra fires up the P.C., which is connected to HAL, and breaks into Ben's account to snoop around in the chat rooms he frequents. (That computer-science lesson he just gave her must be paying off.) His regular haunt is ALOL — American Love Online, "the only Internet singles bar with no holds barred!" Ben's computer is so futuristic and high-tech that it does everything by voice command, including entering your password (which seems unsafe). The computer even reads the menu options out loud, then requires the user to vocally make a selection. There is no way to turn this feature off.
It gets worse in the chat room itself: the software reads the messages aloud, each in a gender-appropriate voice. So instead of silently skimming the inane babblings of semi-literate strangers, you get to HEAR them, all talking at once. This is useful for people who have always wished that the Internet were less like a casual discussion forum and more like a Turkish bazaar.
I probably do not need to tell you that the Internet, as seen in this movie, looks and sounds nothing like any actual website, interface or operating system. It would not surprise me to learn that neither Mastorakis nor anyone else involved in the production had ever seen the Internet before. We're talking about a sub-"Law & Order: SVU" understanding of cyberspace here.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, there is a weird naked twentysomething guy sitting alone in the dark in his apartment, being weird and naked and in his twenties. He wears guyliner and has hallucinations. He looks like he was probably in All-American Rejects. He's played by an intense young actor named Jeffery Dean whose general manner can best be described as "theater major presenting his scene at the end of the semester."
We don't know the character's real name, but he's known as Werther in the chat room, and he gets very possessive when Sondra (under Ben's screen name) chats with a woman called "CrmBrulee." Werther makes angry threats, as weird naked guys often do on the Internet when you upset them, but unlike real-life weird naked guys, Werther actually follows through on his threats. He uses his Internet skills to track down CrmBrulee's name and address, then goes to her house and murders her, filming the whole thing with his webcam goggles and streaming it to Sondra's computer.
How does Werther find CrmBrulee's personal information? How does he take control of Sondra's computer and force her to see the murder? Because of the Internet, that's how. Don't you see how scary it is??
Sondra's sister, Misty (Nicollette Sheridan), has come over to hang out, and she sees the online murder, too, which is a nice bonding moment for the sisters. They call the police, who not only don't believe them, they don't believe that what the sisters describe is even possible. I have to quote this amazing telephone dialogue:
MISTY: No, officer, nothing happened to us. Just listen to me! Some guy killed a girl in plain view!
OFFICER: Whose view, ma'am?
MISTY: Ours, dammit!
OFFICER: You witnessed a murder? Where?
MISTY: Well, I don't know exactly, somewhere in L.A. It was on the Internet.
OFFICER: I see. And you're not under the influence of an intoxicating substance, are you?
MISTY: No, I am not! Some freak webcasted his crime, and we've saved the file!
OFFICER: Ma'am, I'm sure you did, but it might have been a prank. I'll tell you what. I'll give you the number of someone who might be able to help.
MISTY: Who? A shrink?
OFFICER: No, he's with the FBI.
To summarize: When the police think a crime is fictional and the person reporting it is drunk, they send it to the FBI.
The FBI agent Misty and Sondra call is played by Huey Lewis. He, too, is astonished by the very concept of someone webcasting a crime. It's not clear what is so baffling about this to everyone. Do they not believe it is possible for a person to operate a video camera while committing murder? Do they not believe video of any kind can be shown on the Internet? Do they believe that murders, like vampires, cannot be photographed? I don't know. It was 2002. Everything that you can imagine happening on the Internet had happened on the Internet.
The important thing is that FBI Agent Huey Lewis says, "You know, sometimes I think: F*** computers."
He also tells Sondra to send him her entire computer, over the phone, and he will investigate. "If you just click 'send,' I should get everything from your hard drive," he says, with 100 percent technical accuracy.
Well, wouldn't you know it, ol' Werther is back in his apartment by now, watching the whole thing go down because he has access to Sondra's AND the FBI's computers, because he's a hacker, and the Internet. The movie drags things out interminably, but the gist of it is that Werther comes to Sondra's house and tries to kill her and Misty, and the HAL computer house electrocutes him with its electronic doors, but not before having an argument with Sondra about the ethics of such an act. Is a debate between Nastassja Kinski and a computer as scintillating as it sounds like it would be? It is.
Meanwhile, FBI Agent Huey Lewis is hurrying to rescue the women but goes to the wrong address because — wait for it — he trusted the FBI's computer system to tell him where Sondra lives instead of doing a "manual check," which I guess means looking it up in the phone book. Curse you, computers!
When Werther is defeated and everyone is safe and the whole thing is over, Sondra sighs and delivers the final line of the movie: "I love this house." It would appear that the whole point of the story was for her to change her mind about the house. That is, in fact, the only thing about her that has changed from the time the movie started until it ended. This is one of the most incompetent films I've ever seen that had famous people in it, and "She learned to like her house" has got to be the worst character arc.
(Note: I watched the film via Netflix Instant, which the law-enforcement characters in the movie would not believe was a real thing.)