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Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Fear Itself: The Complete First Season

Fear Itself: The Complete First Season
2008 (2009) - Lionsgate
Released on DVD on September 15th, 2009

Horror fans love to bemoan the very existence of PG-13 horror movies, as if profanity, copious nudity and gallons of blood 'n' guts were the only way to entertain them. But this ignores the fact that horror has thrived in the even more restrictive world of commercial television for decades. From classics like The Twilight Zone to short-lived cult favorites like Kolchak: The Night Stalker to modern shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the currently running Supernatural, horror has always had a home on the small screen. And not a one of them requires accompaniment by a parent or guardian.

Mick Garris tried pushing the limits of TV terror with Masters of Horror, the anthology series spotlighting notable fear filmmakers like John Carpenter, Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper. After running for two seasons on Showtime, Garris essentially transplanted the concept to network television with Fear Itself. The series debuted in June 2008 on NBC but its initial run was soon interrupted by the Summer Olympics. Once the games were over, the network announced that Fear Itself would not be returning to its lineup.

Now, all 13 episodes are available on DVD, optimistically subtitled The Complete First Season, some in a bit bloodier Director's Cut form. If you didn't get a chance to see it on TV, it's worth picking up. Like Masters of Horror, it's hit or miss but the success rate is surprisingly strong. Here's the episode-by-episode rundown.

Eater - Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs this tale of an incarcerated serial cannibal who uses some voodoo-hoodoo mojo to take the form of his guards and attempt an escape. A strong introduction to the series with some grisly moments sure to make you squirm and a very creepy performance by Stephen R. Hart as the Eater. B

Spooked - Eric Roberts stars as a forcibly retired cop turned private investigator. His brutal methods come back to literally haunt him when he's hired to set up a stakeout in an abandoned house. The always interesting and woefully underrated Brad Anderson (Session 9) directs this one. Roberts is great and the episode is compelling, although you'll probably see the end coming far in advance. B-

Community - A young married couple (Brandon Routh and Shiri Appleby) get a deal on a beautiful house in the suburbs that seems too good to be true. Turns out that this planned community plans every detail, not just for the neighborhood but for your life. Mary Harron (American Psycho) directs this enjoyable riff on The Stepford Wives, which is about a hundred times better than the actual Stepford remake with Nicole Kidman. B

The Sacrifice - With one of their party injured and their truck disabled, four guys seek refuge in a massive old fort inhabited by three beautiful sisters. The ladies aren't as alone as they appear, however. They're actually trying to protect the world from an ancient, bloodthirsty evil. Solid performances and effective scares distinguish this episode, directed by Breck Eisner (he helmed the upcoming remake of George Romero's The Crazies, if you're puzzled by his genre connection) and written by Garris from a short story by Dark Delicacies owner Del Howison. B-

In Sickness and in Health - The first real disappointment in the series. Maggie Lawson plays a bride who receives an anonymous note minutes before her wedding that reads, "The person you are marrying is a serial killer." Not a bad premise but it's stretched too thin, going around in circles to the point of irritation and culminating in a nonsensical twist. Lawson's groom, James Roday, somewhat resembles Crispin Glover and I'd have probably enjoyed the episode more if he'd been cast instead. A letdown from American Werewolf director John Landis. C-

Family Man - A loving father and husband finds himself trapped in the body of a vicious serial killer after their souls cross paths in an emergency room. Ronny Yu (Freddy Vs. Jason) directs what would have been a classic half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone. Here, it goes on a bit too long but the performances by Clifton Collins Jr. and Colin Ferguson are so good, you won't necessarily mind. B+

Something with Bite - Wendell Pierce stars as a schlubby veterinarian whose life is changed for the better after he's bitten by a werewolf. A fun, light-hearted episode from director Ernest Dickerson (Demon Knight) and writer Max Landis, reminiscent of HBO's Tales from the Crypt. B-

New Year's Day - A full-fledged zombie apocalypse episode with Briana Evigan waking up after a booze-fueled New Year's Eve to discover the living dead are roaming the streets. 30 Days of Night creator Steve Niles co-writes this episode, based on a story by Paul Kane. It has its moments but the payoff doesn't work and director Darren Lynn Bousman utilizes the same shaky-cam style from his Saw sequels that annoys me to no end. C

Skin and Bones - Wendigo director Larry Fessenden revisits the mythical Native American creature in this excellent installment written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. Doug Jones is wonderfully creepy as a man who returns from ten days trapped in the mountains inhabited by the spirit of the Wendigo. The episode ends up going a little too far when it indulges in an extended and kind of pointless scene of gratuitous cannibalism and the end is far too abrupt. But most of the episode works beautifully. Definitely a highlight of the series. B+

Chance - Ethan Embry stars as a lovable loser who gets in over his head after he's scammed by antique dealer Vondie Curtis-Hall. Making matters worse, his doppelganger is egging him on and getting him into ever deepening trouble. John Dahl (Red Rock West) may not be the first name that pops into your head when you think horror and with good reason. This episode is more Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Twilight Zone and if you approach it with that in mind, it's not bad. Embry is good and the episode is intriguing, if a little slow. B-

The Spirit Box - Two teenage girls construct a spirit box (essentially a homemade Ouija board) on Halloween night and begin receiving messages from a classmate who supposedly killed herself. Ghost Girl says it was murder, so the two friends put on their Nancy Drew hats for some amateur sleuthing. Rob Schmidt (Wrong Turn) directs this episode with admirable restraint although, like too many of these episodes, the story falls apart when the final twist is revealed. Still, it's not a bad episode, reminiscent of kid-centric horror shows like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark. C+

Echoes - Aaron Stanford stars as a troubled grad student who moves into an old house and starts to have visions of a murder that took place there in the 20s. Soon, he begins to believe he actually was the killer in a past life. Rupert Wainwright (Stigmata) directs this handsome but hollow episode, one of the few in the series that can be described as boring. D+

The Circle - It's Stephen King vs. The Evil Dead as a best-selling horror novelist (Johnathon Schaech) finds his book coming to life when he and four friends spend Halloween in a remote cabin in the woods. Directed by newcomer Eduardo Rodriguez, The Circle starts out promisingly and boasts some neat makeup effects. Unfortunately, it also sports quite a few chintzy CGI effects and the episode fails to keep its momentum up, despite the best efforts of its cast. C

Lionsgate has brought Fear Itself to disc in a 4-DVD set with two episodes per side (episode 13 rides solo on the fourth disc). Whatever you think of the series itself, you have to admit that the packaging is very cool. The episodes look just OK, with some distinct digital noise apparent in a few of them, and the audio is about average as well. Each episode gets a Recipe for Fear featurette spotlighting its director (usually with a few added comments by an actor or two). Surprisingly, most of them say the same things when discussing their love of the genre and their influences. Still, you do get some interesting glimpses of the directors at work and a fair sense of their personalities. For example, I appreciated John Landis's episode a bit more after hearing him aptly compare it to an old radio melodrama. And Darren Lynn Bousman seems especially out of touch if he thinks that his episode doesn't rely on blood and gore.

Overall, Fear Itself was a worthy successor to Masters of Horror. Even the worst episodes here have a little something to recommend them. Its failure to find an audience says less about the quality of the series than with the changing landscape of network television. In an era where NBC decides to devote five hours of primetime real estate per week to Jay Leno, a dramatic anthology series doesn't make a lot of financial sense. Sadly, we may have seen the last gasp of series like this one. But as long as television continues to produce original programming, horror will definitely be a part of it.

Program Rating (Average): B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/C

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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