The anthology series has had a bit of a rough ride since the golden days of the original Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Sure, there have been a few memorable highlights, such as the ‘80s TZ, the Spielberg-headed Amazing Stories, and the black-witted gorefest Tales from the Crypt. But for the most part, we’re left with the likes of the Forrest Whitaker-era Twilight Zone or the virtually unseen Masters of Science Fiction. The results are almost always a mixed bag – perhaps that’s just an inherent pitfall of the format. Fear Itself, which originally aired on NBC, is no exception. There are definitely some diamonds in the rough, but whether Fear Itself should find its way onto your DVD shelf or into your Netflix queue depends largely on whether you’re a fan of any of the talent involved.
It’s no surprise to see Mick Garris attached as Fear Itself’s creator. Garris has been mixed up in both televised horror and anthology series for 20 years, serving as a story editor on Amazing Stories and directing the 1994 miniseries version of Stephen King’s The Stand. More recently, Garris has been a producer on both Showtime’s Masters of Horror and ABC’s Masters of Science Fiction. MoH had its moments, but those moments were sandwiched between predictability and empty-headed gore-mongering. Still, Fear Itself has some genuinely talented purveyors of horror attached, and airing on network television meant the show couldn’t always fall back on cheap shock and splatter. Let’s take it episode by episode, shall we?
“Eater (Director’s Cut)” – The set kicks off with a creepy little tale of a female cop (Elisabeth Moss) stranded in a small-town police station with a dangerous prisoner classified as an “eater.” In short, if you become this guy’s victim, you can look forward to being kept alive while he cuts bits off you and fries them up before your eyes. At least until he gets around to eating your eyes. Director Stuart Gordon proved his horror chops by giving us Re-Animator, and his Dagon is still the closest anyone’s come to getting Lovecraft right on the big screen. Mad Men fans will be amused to see Peggy Olson sparring with a cannibalistic serial killer, and the sequence where we see a flashback of the Eater earning his name is genuinely wince-inducing. It’s your basic “trapped in an enclosed space with a bad nasty” story, but it tackles that familiar subject matter well enough.
“The Sacrifice” – Garris handles the script work here in a tale of four crooks who wind up stranded in an old fort filled with secrets and violence. The most recognizable entry on director Breck Eisner’s resume is Sahara, and he doesn’t do much to distinguish himself here. The main attraction is a solid performance by Rachel Miner, who is indelibly stamped on my memory thanks to playing Runkle’s Suicide Girl secretary in Californication and for being very, very naked in Bully. The episode’s final scene hinges on a not-that-surprising reveal, but that moment is completely sold by the look in Miner’s eye during this moment.
“Community” – The man who would be Superman, Brandon Routh stars with E.R.’s Shiri Appleby as a married couple looking for a new home before they commence with the babymaking. They find a planned community that almost seems too perfect, and that initial impression proves to be very accurate once they move in and discover an atmosphere more Prisoner than picket fences. American Psycho director Mary Harron and writer Kelly Kennemer bring a nice, dark wit to a tale that doesn’t seem that far-fetched given some of the stories you hear about power-drunk homeowners’ associations. You won’t find many surprises here, but it’s a fun hour.
“In Sickness & In Health” – The biggest take-away from this episode is, “Holy crap, Cigarette Smoking Man got old!” William B. Davis has a small role as a priest, and the poor guy looks like he’s one stray breeze from keeling over. John Landis is in the director’s seat this time around, with Jeepers Creepers writer Victor Salva penning the script about a bride who gets colder feet than normal on her wedding day when she receives an anonymous note suggesting her groom is a serial killer. Like many anthology entries, “In Sickness” is basically just set-up for a last-minute twist. While Landis does a solid job building tension, that twist seems a bit arbitrary, and the whole thing starts to unravel the more you think about it.
“Spooked” – This one had the bar set high for me, because director Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is one of my benchmarks when it comes to psychological horror. This tale of a private eye forced to confront the regrets of his past by supernatural forces never approaches the brilliance of that film, but that’s not too surprising given that Anderson is only directing here, leaving the scripting to the guy who wrote White Noise 2. Session 9 covered vaguely similar ground much more effectively and intelligently with regards to secrets, regret, and the unraveling of the human mind. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but it’s not one I could avoid.
“Family Man” – A twist on the age-old “body-swap” concept, Carnivale’s Dan Knauf scripts one of the series’ better segments. After a near-fatal car accident, a family man (Eureka’s Colin Ferguson) switches bodies with a serial killer (Clifton Collin Jr.) who occupied a neighboring bed in the E.R. One tenet of writing is to get your protagonist up a tree, then start throwing rocks at him, and Knauf’s script has that down to a tee. Ferguson’s Dennis finds himself behind bars and at the mercies of a justice system that dismisses his “I’m not the guy” rants as a ploy for an insanity plea, but that’s not his biggest problem. His biggest problem is that a serial killer is living with his family in his body – and that killer specializes in murdering entire families. The script keeps you wondering how Dennis will get out of this mess, but also raises the possibility that serial killer Richard may genuinely be using this cosmic happenstance as a chance for redemption. Both actors give notable performances, and the episode wraps up with hands-down one of the cruelest and bleakest twists I’ve ever seen on screen. We're talking Darabont's The Mist-level mean here.
“New Year’s Day” – From Saw franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman and comic writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), “NYD” takes the premise of a young woman waking up with no memory smack in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and runs with it. The episode is evocative of Cloverfield, focusing on one small, personal story unfolding amidst widespread calamity, filling in the backstory as it goes and leading up to an inevitable twist. That twist is not a bad one, but you’re not likely to appreciate it much since, by the time it arrives, Bousman’s hyper-stylized, quick-cut direction will have given you such a migraine that you’ll be passed out in an Advil-induced coma. The director tries so hard to be stylish and edgy; he succeeds only in being annoying and obfuscating.
“Skin and Bones (Director’s Cut)” – Fear Itself’s second foray into cannibalism tackles the Native-American legend of the Wendigo. Scripted by the writing team of Drew McWeeny (formerly “Moriarty” of Ain’t It Cool News) and Scott Swan, “Skin and Bones” is a pretty basic premise that gets most of its mileage out of forcing protagonist Elena (Molly Hagan) to do unspeakable things in order to survive and protect her family. McWeeny and Swan’s script is occasionally weighed down with horror-movie logic, but director Larry Fessenden carves out some great tension. Hagan’s performance is believable and multi-layered, and the eerily thin Doug Jones (Hellboy) chews every bit of scenery he can.
“Something With Bite” – Director Ernest Dickerson and writer Max Landis present a thoroughly silly take on the werewolf genre. After a veterinarian gets his arm nibbled on by a wounded lycanthrope, he begins to discover the upside of having a night-life. It’s a goofy take that approaches werewolf mythology from an unusual angle, and it manages to be a fun bit of fluff. After all, it’s not like horror always has to be so depressing…
“The Spirit Box” – “Spirit Box” aims for my horror-movie weak spot: J-horror-style creepy undead girls. Two teenage friends decide to play around with a variation on the Ouija board and manage to make contact with the angry spirit of a deceased classmate. Most of the episode is spent trying to I.D. the girl’s killer, and along the way there are several moments likely to levitate you out of your chair. Granted, they tend to be of the jump-scare variety, but they’re at least well-done jump scares. That being said, there’s very little new here, and it’s very much a TV version of The Ring or The Grudge. Those films managed to terrify thanks to a copious sense of dread, some iconic and horrific imagery (“I saw her face!”), and by undermining audience expectations (Samara can come out of your freakin’ TV/not even your covers can save you from the Grudge chick). Most of this episode’s effective moments are effective largely because they’re riding the coattails of those films.
“Chance” – One of the set’s weakest entries, “Chance” is a predictable variation on “Jekyll & Hyde” where a guy (Ethan Embry – Freakylinks in da house!) inexplicably finds himself confronted with an evil version of himself. Most of the ep is spent with Embry’s Chance trying to clean up or hide the aftermath of his evil twin’s shenanigans, culminating in a “so what?” twist that seems to be there just ‘cause they couldn’t figure out how else to exit. I’m not the sort who needs every question answered in order to enjoy a story like this, but both the script and Chance himself approach these outlandish events with such a stubbornly incurious attitude that this story never has a – if you’ll forgive me – chance of being anything but rote and predictable.
“Echoes” – Writer Sean Hood (Halloween: Resurrection) and director Rupert Wainwright’s (The Fog) take on the concept of past lives is a stylish but thoroughly forgettable affair. I mean that literally. I watched the damn thing less than a week ago and I’m struggling to remember anything about it. I remember thinking to myself that Eric Balfour is exceptionally pointy, and being impressed at how risqué a flashback scene set in a hedonistic party was, but that’s about it. Seriously, though. You could cut a two-by-four with Balfour’s chin.
“The Circle” – Director Eduardo Rodriguez and writers Richard Chizmar & Johnathon Schaech must be huge Sam Raimi fans, because “The Circle” is so in love with Evil Dead that I spent most of the ep waiting for Bruce Campbell to show up and show these folks how it’s done. Isolated cabin in the woods, check. Mysterious book that unleashes supernatural goings-on, check. People getting violently possessed, check. There’s no shortage of déjà vu here, but the episode does manage to leave a good impression thanks to a clever closing twist that is an object lesson in specificity being key when dealing with the paranormal. You’ll likely see it coming, but this is a case where that’s not a bad thing, because there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the disaster coming and watching as the protagonists walk blindly into it, just as you expected.
Each episode of Fear Itself includes a “Recipe for Fear” making-of featurette highlighting that installment’s director, usually clocking in at around five minutes. While some of it is the usual “He’s a genius/I loved working with him” mutual masturbation you’ll find in any press kit, most of these directors are genuine fans of horror, so it’s nice to see them talk about how they came to the genre and what excited them about their episodes. Still, since many of the people involved here also worked on Masters of Horror, it’s hard not to compare this set’s features to the bountiful extras on many of those discs and feel a little disappointed. Then again, it’s actually a little surprising that the set includes any extras at all, since the show wasn’t exactly a ratings juggernaut. The interviews may be bite sized, but at least the bites are tasty.