I honestly wasn’t expecting much from NBC’s short-lived horror series, Fear Itself. After all, it came from Mick Garris and the same folks who brought us the insufferably inconsistent Showtime series, Masters of Horror. Masters of Horror’s one saving grace was the ample amount of skin and gore cable television allowed it to get away with, but, with a primetime slot on network TV, Fear Itself would have no such luxury. Sure, the CSI-era had certainly softened the censors when it came to blood and body parts, but not to the extent of that allowed by cable, so Fear Itself would have to depend on quality storylines and comparatively blood-free scares if it were to succeed.
After the first few episodes, I had already made up my mind that Garris’ second attempt at a horror anthology series was consistently better than his first, but, sadly (and, expectedly, seeing as how NBC is loathe to step outside of its comfort zone of formulaic crime shows and hospital dramas), the network shelved the series before it had a chance to catch on. Now Fear Itself comes to DVD in a four disc set containing all 13 episodes – five of which never made it to air.
While no anthology series is without its share of misfires, the good more than outweighs the bad in the case of Fear Itself, with only John Landis’ oh-so-predictable wedding farce, “In Sickness and in Health”(in which a bride-to-be finds a note telling her she’s about to marry a serial killer) and Mary Harron’s (American Psycho) derivative “Community”, yet another twist on the old “perfect neighborhood harboring a dark secret” motif, standing out as total duds. Otherwise, the remaining episodes range from moderately entertaining to flat out excellent!
Stuart Gordon’s “Eater” is a favorite of mine. It’s one of those perfect dark and stormy night situations, where a rookie cop (Elisabeth Moss) must spend a long and lonely evening guarding a gargantuan cannibal serial killer in an isolated police station. It’s a simple formula, but Gordon’s approaches it with both a sense of humor and urgency that makes this one a funny and frantic nailbiter.
Darren Lynn Bousman and Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) team up for a tense and twisted take on a zombie apocalypse with their collaboration, “New Year’s Day”. I rather liked the intimacy of this episode, and appreciated the way Niles’ script kept us just as in the dark about what was going on as his protagonist. While the twist ending wasn’t the payoff I was hoping for, New Year’s Day is still a strong outing, and one that really sold me on the series when it originally aired.
The highly underrated Larry Fessenden’s episode, “Skin and Bones” (scripted by Drew McWeeny, who also scripted John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episodes “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life”) is yet another meditation by the director on the Native American myth of the Wendigo. Doug Jones stars as a rancher who returns home emaciated after being lost in the mountains for weeks. As his family tries to nurse him back to health, we learn that the rancher has become possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo, and his hunger can only be satiated by one thing . This is a more literal approach to the myth than Fessenden took with his feature film, “Wendigo”, but McWeeney’s script still has enough of the human element to make this just as tragic as it is terrifying. Good stuff!
Other solid episodes include Breck Eisner and Mick Garris’ “The Sacrifice” - a tale of a group of fugitive who seek shelter at an isolated old fort where three gorgeous young sisters reside; Ernest Dickerson’s “Something with Bite”, in which a local veterinarian has a strange reaction to the bite of a mysterious creature left in his care, and Rupert Wainwright’s (“Stigmata”) compelling past-lives yarn Echoes, where a young student (“The Hills Have Eyes’” Aaron Stanford) is haunted by visions of a ‘20’s era killer (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s” Eric Balfour).
Lionsgate brings Fear Itself to DVD in an attractively packaged four disc set, with director introductions for each episode. Episodes are presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a solid 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. I’m a bit bummed that the set didn’t merit a Blu-ray release as the episodes originally aired in both standard and HD during the series brief run, so, visually, this is quite a step down from what I remember. While extras are scarce, there’s over ten hours’ worth of material here, and, considering the bargain price (as of this writing, it can be had at Amazon for $21.99) this set is a steal.