Not long after my recent post where I revisited both seasons of the iconic 2006 & 2007 Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror, a friend of mine reminded me of something that I had, for some reason, completely forgotten about: that there was technically a third season of Masters of Horror, after a fashion. Following the success of the series on Showtime, you see, NBC apparently approached series creator Mick Garris and asked him to adapt the same concept into a horror series that would air on network television in the 10pm Thursday night slot. The name of the show was changed to Fear Itself, but it was essentially the same idea: each episode would be a stand-alone, roughly 45-minute movie, written and/or directed by a different genre heavyweight.
Although Fear Itself didn’t pull nearly the same dazzling array of talent as Masters of Horror did, there were some esteemed directors from the initial run who returned, including Brad Anderson, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Ernest Dickerson, and Rob Schmidt. Fear Itself also featured films by some other celebrated horror directors who hadn’t participated in the Showtime series, such as Ronny Yu, Mary Harron, and Larry Fessenden, and boasted an impressive roster of acting muscle as well.
Of course, being on network TV was bound to defang the concept somewhat, as everything had to be toned down to PG-13, but this didn’t affect the overall quality of most of the episodes, at least in my opinion. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact: although some installments can definitely be said to be pulling punches, Fear Itself actually got away with a bit more gore and darker subject matter than I would have expected.
The series began its brief run in early June of 2008, and although 13 episodes were ordered and produced, only eight of them were ever broadcast. The network pre-empted the show for the 2008 Summer Olympics, stating that the program would return after the end of the event, but it never came back on, and NBC didn’t even officially announce that they had cancelled it until spring of 2009. That same year, the entire series was released as a DVD set, including the five episodes that had never aired. As of this writing, though, at least in the United States, Fear Itself is very easy to stream: it’s available for free on YouTube, Vudu, PLEX, and the Roku Channel.
Although on my Masters of Horror breakdown, I sort of skipped around, talking about the episodes in order of preference from best to worst, I think to avoid confusion, I’ll talk about the Fear Itself episodes in the order they’re listed on the show’s Wikipedia page (which was how they were initially broadcast on TV). Not that it matters all that much, but the order the episodes aired in on NBC isn’t the same as the order they’re in on the DVD or on streaming services, but the distinction is completely moot, as every episode is its own distinct mini-movie anyway. So let’s dive right in.
Directed by Breck Eisner (son of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and probably best known to horror fans for helming the 2010 remake of George Romero’s The Crazies) and co-written by Mick Garris and Del Howinson (adapted from Howinson’s short story “The Lost Herd”), “The Sacrifice” was a decent enough way to kick off the series, I suppose; it was nothing special, to be honest, but it was good enough to give you hope that subsequent episodes would be even better. I guess in 2008, horror on TV was a harder sell, and it’s clear that the suits in charge of programming were trying to hedge their bets with this inaugural episode: wanting a story that was interesting enough to pull in horror fans, but not so extreme or graphic that it would repel casual viewers.
The tale begins in medias res, with a group of four guys in a car who are obviously fleeing from some prior event; one of the men, Navarro, is wounded, apparently from a gunshot. The car drives over a spike in the road, which disables the vehicle, and the group then trek toward a remote settlement for help after seeing smoke from a distant chimney.
When they get there, they find a nearly abandoned compound (filmed at Fort Edmonton Park) with a bunch of crude gravesites in the front. Eventually, they meet the residents of this remote outpost: three hot blondes who live with no electricity and no running water, and have apparently never left their homestead. Initially the sisters are accommodating, giving the men some stew and offering to tend to the injured Navarro, but it becomes clear almost immediately that something nefarious is going on, and that the sisters are in the service of some terrible creature bent on devouring the protagonists.
As I mentioned, this one was sort of middle of the road: the monster design was pretty great and there was some decent grue, but the story was fairly predictable and none of the guys was all that likeable (other than the endearingly dorky Lemon, played by Jesse Plemons, who I recognized from Antlers and I’m Thinking of Ending Things), so you didn’t really mind when the monster started chowing down on them. But overall it’s well-shot and capably directed, with some solid acting performances.
This second episode was also pretty good, though I admit my attention wandered somewhat during its runtime, and I sort of lost track of what was going on for a bit toward the end. Written by Mick Garris and Matt Venne, and directed by the great Brad Anderson (who has been cemented in the horror pantheon for directing Session 9 and The Machinist; he also did one of the better though more understated episodes of Masters of Horror, “Sounds Like”), the blandly-named “Spooked” follows shitty cop Harry Siegel (played by Eric Roberts), who’s a big advocate of beating information out of people and just generally being an abusive tool. After he deliberately murders a man suspected of kidnapping a young boy, he’s thrown off the force, and many years later, is working as a private investigator, spending his days recording evidence of sleazy extramarital affairs.
In the course of his line of work, he’s approached by a woman named Meredith (played by Cynthia Watros of Lost), who wants him to prove that her husband is cheating on her. She tells him that the creepy house across the street from hers is abandoned, and would make a perfect hiding place from which to watch her hubby’s comings and goings without him being the wiser.
Shortly into this gig, however, Harry starts seeing things in the house, like lights on in the windows and people talking to one another, even though his partner doesn’t see or hear anything unusual. It slowly starts to dawn on Harry that the voices he’s picking up in his headphones from the house across the street are actually people he wronged in the past, including the man he murdered fifteen years before, and the whole story then becomes a kind of supernatural revenge and redemption narrative.
Eric Roberts mostly tones down his usual scene-chewing here to the episode’s benefit. I also really liked the eerie imagery of the changing graffiti drawings in the abandoned house, and Larry Gilliard Jr. from The Wire provided some welcome levity as Harry’s partner James. Another middling episode, but with enough compelling details to make it worth watching.
This was easily one of the best episodes of the series in my opinion, and I liked that it went in some directions I didn’t quite expect. Written by Carnivàle‘s Daniel Knauf and directed by Ronny Yu (of Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason fame), “Family Man” is basically a body-swap kind of story, with a much bleaker ending than I would have expected from a network series.
Colin Ferguson (who’s been in tons of stuff, but who I recognized from the 2006 Lifetime adaptation of the Anne Rivers Siddons novel The House Next Door) plays a guy named Dennis Mahoney, who seems to have it all: great job, beautiful house, loving wife, and two adoring children. But one afternoon, he’s involved in a horrific car accident and dies on the operating table. Unfortunately for him, another man named Brautigan (played by Clifton Collins Jr. of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pacific Rim, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is brought into the hospital at the same time, completely shot full of holes. Brautigan, it turns out, was a serial killer known as The Family Man, due to his habit of slaughtering entire families, beginning with his own when he was still a kid.
Brautigan and Mahoney are both brought back to life, but their souls have switched bodies, meaning that the innocent Mahoney is now behind bars, while Brautigan is free to take over Mahoney’s life. I think the most interesting thing about this episode is that it didn’t really go the more predictable route of having Brautigan continue his serial killing with a new face and identity, but instead chose to do something more intriguing: Brautigan decides he wants to make a fresh start and essentially live as Mahoney, with the good life and loving family he’s always felt he was denied. The suspense of this setup is generated by the fact that Brautigan can’t quite manage to tamp down his murderous impulses. It’s also quite tense watching the real Mahoney attempting to get out of his hopeless predicament from behind the face of a serial killer.
Body-swapping tales have been done many times before, but I really enjoyed this take on the trope, and I was glad to see that the ending wasn’t afraid to take things to their inevitable conclusion, as dark and nihilistic as that was.
In Sickness and in Health
This one seems to be one of the worst-reviewed episodes of the series, and although I enjoyed it to a degree, it did kinda drag in places, and the twist ending, while I didn’t see it coming, makes less sense the longer you think about it.
Directed by the legendary John Landis, who needs no introduction, and penned by Jeepers Creepers creator and noted pedophile Victor Salva, “In Sickness and in Health,” as you might imagine, takes place entirely during a single wedding day. Samantha (played by Maggie Lawson of Psych) is marrying her boyfriend Carlos (played by James Roday, also of Psych), who she hasn’t actually known all that long, a fact which her friends keep subtly alluding to.
While Samantha and her bridesmaids are getting ready for the ceremony, Samantha is slipped a note, ostensibly from some mysterious woman wearing a red head scarf who disappears before the festivities commence. The note simply reads, “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.”
From there, the rest of the story plays out the way you might expect: Samantha evidently begins to doubt her decision to marry this person she knows so little about, and Carlos acts in ways that suggest that the note could possibly be true. It’s clear Carlos has a secret of some kind, but is it as dire as the note made it out to be?
This one, as noted, has a big twist ending, which is fun but completely illogical in the context of the story. It was nonetheless fairly decent overall, though it might have worked better if it was shorter, as most of the second act felt very padded and repetitive.
Another one of the best episodes of the series, this one features Elisabeth Moss before she was massively famous (although she was getting accolades for her role in Mad Men at this point, which had started in 2007), playing a rookie cop and horror geek named Bannerman.
Directed by the late, great Stuart Gordon, written by Cemetery Dance editor Richard Chizmar and actor/screenwriter Johnathon Schaech (who would also appear in “The Circle,” the final episode of the series), and adapted from a short story by Peter Crowther, “Eater” is the story of a Cajun, cannibalistic serial killer with massively jacked up teeth named Duane “Eater” Mellon (terrifyingly played by the nearly seven-foot-tall Stephen R. Hart), who is being transported by the FBI during a snowstorm and has to spend the night in a cell at a small, remote police station staffed by only three people: the female Bannerman and her two jerkwad male colleagues, who call her “goth cop” because of her love for horror and generally act like sexist shit-stains.
Over the course of the night, it begins to dawn on Bannerman that there’s something decidedly unnatural about Duane Mellon, aside from the fact that he enjoys snacking on people while they’re still alive. As her two male colleagues begin acting stranger and stranger and Bannerman begins seeing things, she becomes convinced that the serial killer’s cannibalistic habits have perhaps given him supernatural powers.
I think this might have been my favorite episode overall; the acting is great, it’s very suspenseful, and there’s way more gore than I would have expected from something shown on network TV, including several removed hearts and a slice of pizza topped with a gooey eyeball. Elisabeth Moss is always wonderful, and she really sold the premise here. Also, big props to Stephen R. Hart, who is pants-shittingly scary as the hulking cannibal; he needs to be in more things!
New Year’s Day
The only episode I really didn’t care for at all, “New Year’s Day” was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (who did four Saw movies and Repo! The Genetic Opera, among other things), and written by 30 Days of Night scribe Steve Niles, along with Ben Sokolowski, who writes for the CW series Arrow and The Flash.
The premise of this episode was a bit disjointed, so I’m not entirely sure what happened, and the over-caffeinated editing gave me contact anxiety, but from what I could gather, the story follows a young woman named Helen (played by Briana Evigan), who wakes up horribly hung-over after a New Year’s bash, and discovers that there’s been something like a zombie apocalypse overnight. I guess the monsters technically aren’t zombies; it’s established that their zombie-like behavior has been caused by some catastrophic leak at a chemical plant.
Anyway, the story jumps back and forth from the present time, where Helen is trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to get to her potential boyfriend’s house, to the night before, as she begins to piece together the events that got her to the place where she’s at. Honestly, until I read the synopsis on Wikipedia I didn’t even realize that this episode had a twist ending, because the narrative was so incoherent that I gave up trying to follow it about ten minutes in. Besides that, zombie apocalypses aren’t really my bag, as they’ve been done to death, so this one had several strikes against it from the jump. This is actually the only episode I would skip if I was ever doing a rewatch of the series; it annoyed me that much.
Okay, this one is a bit more like it. Directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page), “Community” comes off a bit like a modern-day take on The Stepford Wives, filtered through the conservative, “family values” crowd.
Bobby and Tracy are the stereotypical, city-dwelling young couple who are thinking of moving out to the suburbs in order to start a family in a safer environment. A friend tells them about this planned community called The Commons, that’s very selective with their residents but otherwise seems perfect: no crime, excellent schools, and a close-knit neighborhood that helps its own to reach the top echelons of society.
Bobby and Tracy apply, and get the spiel about the careful balance The Commons has achieved; thousands of years of research into what makes communities work has been filtered down to a very specific formula. The couple are deemed worthy of the neighborhood, and are sold a massive house for far less than they expected to pay. The other residents are very friendly…but maybe too friendly, and perhaps too interested in matters that Bobby and Tracy would prefer to keep between themselves.
Obviously, this community is all kinds of fucked up and draconian, with a policy of constant surveillance and policing, and bunch of rigid rules about how to behave, when to reproduce, and what happens to people who flout the community’s standards. This episode, while not overtly scary, was sort of low-key unnerving, as I could imagine what a nightmare it would be to live somewhere with these weird invasive neighbors dropping by all the time and sticking their noses into your private business. Much like The Stepford Wives, this one also had a satirical bite that worked well with the “terror of the suburbs” vibe.
Skin & Bones
The last of the Fear Itself episodes to air on NBC, “Skin & Bones” was directed by Larry Fessenden and featured the always-awesome Doug Jones in some almighty freaky-looking (although still disturbingly human) monster makeup.
At the beginning of the story, it’s established that rancher Grady (Doug Jones) went out into the mountains with a couple of his cohorts and has yet to return; his wife Elena (Molly Hagan) and his brother Rowdy (John Pyper-Ferguson), who it’s clear have been having an affair for some time, fear that Grady has perished in the frozen wasteland.
So imagine their surprise when the missing rancher comes staggering onto the property, looking horribly cadaverous and dehydrated, and sporting severe frostbite on his fingers and ears. They put the poor man to bed and attempt to nurse him back to health, but it’s evident that Grady ain’t the same man he was when he first went out on the trip.
Turns out, in fact, that Grady resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive up on the mountain, and that, coupled with the rage he felt at the knowledge of his wife and brother’s relationship, caused him to accept the spirit of the Wendigo into himself. So now Grady is possessed of a supernatural hunger that drives him to try to eat his way through his entire family.
This was also a pretty great episode; Doug Jones was fantastic, and the Wendigo look they gave him was outstanding, especially the teeth. Although some of the gore was softened for TV (such as a gunshot to the face and a cleaver to the chest, both of which occurred offscreen), it was bloody enough to get the job done. The plot didn’t have any big twists or anything like that, but it didn’t really need them; it was just a good, straightforward monster story with some rad makeup effects and a creepy lead performance.
Something With Bite
More comedy than horror, but still pretty entertaining, “Something With Bite” was written by Max Landis and directed by Ernest Dickerson (Demon Knight, Master of Horror‘s “The V Word”). It stars Wendell Pierce as veterinarian Dr. Wilbur Orwell, who is bitten by a werewolf after a guy hits one with his car and brings it into the clinic.
Unfortunately for Dr. Orwell, there’s also been a series of grisly murders happening around the city that detectives suspect may have been perpetrated by a wild animal or someone posing as a wild animal, and after a couple of Dr. Orwell’s employees turn up mangled, he begins to wonder if he’s killing people in his werewolf form without being aware of it.
This one was actually a hoot, with Wendell Pierce’s performance being a real highlight. It also featured George Buza (who played Santa in the excellent 2015 anthology film A Christmas Horror Story) in a minor role as the father of the original werewolf. This episode was not scary at all, but still fun and totally worth watching.
Episode 10, “Chance,” was another one that I felt sort of meh about, though it did have strong acting and an interesting premise.
Ethan Embry (Late Phases, The Devil’s Candy) plays a guy named Chance, who is always short of money, it seems, even though he’s promised his girlfriend that he’s going to make his fortune very soon so they no longer have to worry about being behind on the rent. Prior to the events of the story, it’s established, he was at a party and got to talking to an antique dealer named Walter (Vondie Curtis Hall from Daredevil) about a particular vase that belonged to a mutual friend, with the antique dealer speculating that the thing could be worth as much as $45,000. Chance manages to buy the thing off the friend for $20,000, but when he takes it to the antique dealer, Walter tells him that now that he’s looking at it more closely, it’s not as valuable as he thought, and he offers Chance only $5,000 for it. From there, events begin to spiral out of control as Chance becomes convinced that Walter and the friend set him up, and gets more and more desperate to recoup the money he lost.
Intertwined with this narrative was a sort of doppelgänger story, as it so happens that Chance—for reasons that I’m not super clear on but may have something to do with a weird mirror in the antique shop—has a sort of evil twin who seems to be the one carrying out all of the escalating violence as the story goes on. Apparently this mirror-Chance is simply the dark side of Chance’s nature becoming more powerful as the events unfold, but I wasn’t sure what the two aspects of the story necessarily had to do with one another. Overall, though, another watchable episode, if not a particularly scary one.
The Spirit Box
Another one of my favorites because I love ghost stories, “The Spirit Box” was directed by Rob Schmidt (who also helmed the great Masters of Horror episode “Right to Die” featuring Martin Donovan, who incidentally also appears here in a significant role) and written by Joseph Gangemi, who wrote the screenplays for Wind Chill and Stonehearst Asylum, and also wrote an excellent and woefully underrated novel called Inamorata which I’ve talked about before.
The adorable Anna Kendrick plays high schooler Shelby Johnson. It’s Halloween night, and she and her best friend Becca (Jessica Parker Kennedy) are bored, deciding to liven up the night by constructing a homemade Ouija board out of an empty pizza box. It’s all fun and games until it appears that a classmate of theirs, Emily D’Angelo, contacts them and tells them that although everyone believes she committed suicide, she was actually murdered.
From there, Shelby and Becca undergo an investigation to get to the bottom of the mystery, and at some point they figure out who the murderer is and try to prove his involvement, thus placing themselves in mortal danger. This one has a twist ending too, and although I totally didn’t see it coming, I thought it strained credulity quite a bit, as there were way too many things that would have had to have gone a particular way for it to work out like it did. This is a pretty minor nitpick, however, and on the whole I really dug this one.
Another sort of blah episode, “Echoes” was directed by Rupert Wainwright (Stigmata, the terrible remake of The Fog) and concerns a young man named Stephan (Aaron Stanford) who is obsessed with the 1920s, so much so that he purchases a house from that era and sets about decorating it in true roaring 20s style. Stephan has a close friend named Karen (Camille Guaty), who he’s desperately in love with, but can’t quite pull the trigger on starting a romantic relationship with.
Not long after moving into his house, though, he starts having visions of a woman named Zelda, who looks like Karen but in a blonde wig and a flapper outfit, and her sketchy, possessive criminal of a boyfriend Maxwell (Eric Balfour). After talking to his shrink about the visions and undergoing hypnosis, Stephan comes to believe that he is the reincarnation of Maxwell, and that Karen is the reincarnation of Zelda, and that the murderous events of the past are threatening to play out again in the present.
I didn’t love this one, and I didn’t hate it. This was another episode that had a cool premise, but might have benefited from being somewhat shorter, as there was a great deal of repetition and filler in the second act, and it was fairly easy to see how things were going to go (though there was a slight twist at the end).
This last episode was somewhat better, but still just sort of middling. Like “Eater,” this one was also penned by Richard Chizmar and Johnathon Schaech (who also stars), but this time around, Venezuelan director Eduardo Rodríguez takes the helm.
The story follows a writer named Brian (Johnathon Schaech), who made it big with a successful horror novel called Blood Thirsty the year before, but has had writer’s block ever since. His wife Lisa (Ashley Scott), under the guise of taking him up to a remote cabin for a weekend getaway, organizes a sort of intervention on Halloween night, inviting his agent and his publisher up to the cabin to convince him to get cracking on his next book, which is already six months behind schedule.
Only a few minutes into this shindig, though, there comes a knock at the door, and it’s two little girls trick or treating (a callback to a scene in the cold open). The cabin is in the middle of nowhere, so they’re not quite sure where the children came from, but the girls hand over a spooky-looking book called The Circle, which purports to have been written by Brian himself, though he claims he’s never seen it before.
Even more sinister than that is the fact that the book seems to foretell what’s going to happen over the course of the night, detailing a scenario of a living darkness and a vampire-like infection that’s straight out of Brian’s first novel Blood Thirsty. There then follows a classic, cabin-in-the-woods style narrative, with people becoming infected with the darkness and a veneer of black magic permeating the proceedings. Again, a decent episode, but nothing to write home about.
It’s a shame this series didn’t even get the dignity of a full season’s run; not all the episodes are good, of course, but there were enough gems in there to make it worthwhile, had NBC stuck it out long enough to see if it gained an audience. Horror on television has made enormous strides in the 14 years since Fear Itself first aired, and I respect this series for being somewhat ahead of its time, and paving the way for better series to follow in its wake. If you’re a fan of the original Masters of Horror series, then give this one a look; I feel like most people have forgotten about it, but there’s some decent content in here for a horror nerd to chew on, and although the quality of the episodes was uneven, the same could be said for Masters of Horror.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.