After good to poor experiences with Showtime's Masters of Horror, I decided to watch the first season of NBC's Fear Itself on Netflix. Both are TV series that consist of hour-long stand-alone horror stories directed by various people. Quite a few of the Fear Itself episodes are directed by people with horror pedigree, but save for a few cases, there's really no point in choosing the episodes by their directors. Some good directors made some schlocky Fear Itself episodes, and some directors who've done schlocky things in the past made some good episodes here. As I see it, Masters of Horror episodes took more conceptual risks and had a greater chance of being frightening. On the other hand, most of the risks didn't pay off, and a lot of the episodes seemed like "what is the weirdest way I can get T&A in here?" The stories in Fear Itself work with much more traditional monsters, but did more within this constraint. So my experiences with Fear Itself were more like great to poor; I guess that's kind of an improvement. Masters of Horror lasted two seasons. Fear Itself only lasted half a season, and some of the later-season episodes were never aired.
I didn't watch one episode - "Family Man"
- and I only watched five minutes of another, "Spooked."
So I won't discuss those. Of course, there is huge subjectivity in the following reviews, but I think this entry actually says a lot about my taste in horror and narrative, so there ya go? I think the main take-home point is that I want
to give horror stories the benefit of the doubt.
Terrible episodes first. "Eater"
is basically a supernatural version of Assault on Precinct 13. Except the assault is being done by a single cannibal/serial killer who eats people's hearts and thus their souls. The main character is a ridiculously jumpy and incompetent female rookie cop. The police precinct has no security. The plot makes preposterous leaps. The episode implies that Cajuns are cannibals. I don't even know. This was just painful. You're better off watching the X-Files episodes "Fresh Bones" (with bonus awesome post-colonial stress disorder!) and "The Gift" (sympathy for the cannibal). Similarly, instead of watching the terrible episode "Community,"
just watch the X-Files episode it's obviously based on, "Arcadia." Both are about a supposedly perfect suburb that requires its homeowners to live by ridiculous rules, or else. Except "Arcadia" is funny and the monster is scary, and "Community" is just long and draggy and preachy, and there's not even a real threat ("you'll be in breach of contract! OH WOE"). "Chance"
is about a guy who starts impulsively killing people that piss him off one day. He seems to have an evil doppelganger. Either way, totally noxious main character who freaks out about destroying evidence and then kills more innocent people. He finally accepts his evil doppelganger. Ick. "Echoes,"
about a guy who thinks he's the reincarnation of a 1920s thug, isn't really shit, it's just really boring - but YMMV. I tend to think reincarnation/living-history stories are boring. They're right up there with entertainment!ghosts.
Oh, I almost forgot about "The Circle,"
which is also terrible. But this one deserves its own paragraph. Premise: a writer goes to a cabin with his wife, who has secretly invited his agent, publisher, and editor to come stage an intervention, because there's been no sequel to his ultra-successful gory horror novel. It's Halloween. Two creepy little girls come to the door - in the prologue you've already seen them being victimized by some horrible witchcraft ritual - and give them a book, The Circle. They all think it's the writer's sequel, but the writer insists he doesn't know what it is. The Circle's text reveals that the events of his first book, Blood Thirsty, are going to come true in this cabin - that is, black goo is going to start possessing people and turning them into zombie-demons, a la the ridiculous movie Mortuary. The black goo eats the publishing people. The writer's infected with it, but not his wife. Then a witch comes to the door and explains that she wrote Blood Thirsty for the writer because she loved him, and because he took all her success and refused to leave his wife, she's now carrying this whole mess out as punishment. And at this point I'm just like, "Sigh." Only Dario Argento gets away with evil witches, ok? We are living in a post-Charmed era. Coupled with the whole "horror writer whose works come true!" claptrap, "The Circle" felt like a really
retrograde episode - just like "Eater." Backward social norms, regressive horror. Just no.
Thankfully, the other half of Fear Itself is a lot better. "Something With Bite"
sees a werewolf getting brought into a vet's office when someone runs it down. The werewolf dies, but not before biting the vet, who discovers that becoming a werewolf is the best thing to happen to him - he eats better, has sex with his wife, generally is in a better mood. The subplot has to do with people being torn to pieces by an unknown assailant. It's a cute episode. Kitschy as all hell, but cute, and the only one that tries to be funny of the entire season. "Spirit Box"
actually scared me because all ghost stories scare me. It's about two girls that decide to contact spirits for fun and get the ghost of a cheerleader who supposedly committed suicide. This is not original, although there's a decent twist at the end that I only guessed a couple minutes before it was revealed. But it's executed well, and I absolutely loved the main character, played by the fantastic Anna Kendrick (her Jules is probably my actual favorite character in Twilight). She plays a pseudo-goth swimmer, and she says the line I used as the title. "The Sacrifice"
also isn't terrifically original - about a group of guys that ends up stranded in a fortress-village run by a few creepy-sexy blondes and a Nosferatu-ish vampire - but it's an engaging episode with a nice twist. The episode's not called The Sacrifice for nothing, and just goes to show that a little three-dimensional characterization goes a long way.
Then we get the three that I considered really good - a cut above, and worth watching on their own. "In Sickness and in Health"
has a hell of an opening - on her wedding day, a bride who's rushing into marriage gets an anonymous note: "The person you're marrying is a serial killer." The whole thing feels like an urban legend put to screen, so you know
this is going to have to resolve itself with a bang, and that it does. If you want a good example of building narrative tension within a very tight setting, look no further. I think if the entire season of Fear Itself consisted of these last-minute plot twist episodes, it would get old. But this one is witty and pulls it off. "New Year's Day"
is the series' zombie story, but if you have zombie fatigue, do not let that turn you off. The main character - who I related to so much it was almost creepy, esp. in the context of what happens - wakes up on New Year's Day with a terrible hangover. The apartment's dark and there's sirens going off all over the city. Zombie apocalypse! In the dark, she decides to go back to the scene of last night's New Year's party, because she's in love with the host of the party. Shit happens, as you see bits and pieces of what really went on the night before. There's another last minute twist in this episode but it works so
well and I did not see it coming at all
. Original, emotional. Fantastic episode all around.
Though it does make me wonder if I just couldn't really relate
to the episodes I deemed terrible, which seemed to be told from a fairly male perspective (two of them were about a Joe Schmo who's afraid he's turning into a killer) that I found boring and tedious. Question mark?
And finally, my favorite episode, "Skin & Bones."
The husband/father of a ranching family has gone missing in the mountains with a couple ranch hands - but then he comes staggering back to the ranch. Just a bit changed. He looks totally ghastly and emaciated, claims to be hungry, but throws away platters of food. Oh snap, he's turned into a wendigo! Wendigos are my favorite monsters of all mythology, and if I see one in a story I'm almost guaranteed to love it. This was a slightly different rendition of the myth from others that I've seen - the wendigo being a malignant "spirit of the lonely places" that offers life to dying people who are already "too angry to die." Turns out this guy's wife was sleeping with his brother. The wendigo-dude is actually really creepy - creepy-looking, creepy ass howl, creepy gliding across the floor - and then you throw in the little son going, "Don't hurt him! He's just sick!" and the wendigo telling the Indian ranch hand not to be tempted to kill him, since no one will believe the Indian guy over the rich white rancher... wow. Really fun, and really gruesome. It turns out this was directed by Larry Fessenden, who is as obsessed with wendigos as I am, and has already made two awesome movies (Wendigo, The Last Winter) about them. But this was really
different from those movies, and I wouldn't have guessed it was him. Good to see you're at least making different kinds of wendigo movies now, Larry!
Plus something I realized? Here's a monster whose body is both very identifiably masculine but very identifiably monstrous. Most of the time when you get a male villain in these stories he's just an ordinary man with an ax or a chainsaw (or a bad set of teeth). When you get a female villain - not in Fear Itself, but in other stories - it's often her body itself that's monstrous, broken or fucked up in some way. I mean, contrast just the appearance of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman
and Sissy Spacek's Carrie
. I haven't really thought this through and there are probably dozens of exceptions, but it just occurred to me while thinking over "Skin & Bones." It would make some sociological sense, after all. Men are active wielders of powerful weapons. Women are bodies, and a monstrous woman is a deformed body. Or something like that.
But the main thing Fear Itself has going for it? The theme song, "Lie Lie Lie"
by Serj Tankian of System of a Down.