Fear Itself: The Complete First Season (2008)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 14, 2009  | 
Lionsgate (USA). Region 1, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. 593 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Directors: Stuart Gordon, Brad Anderson, Mary Harron, Breck Eisner, John Landis, Ronny Yu, Ernest Dickerson, Darren Lynn Bousman, Larry Fessenden, John Dahl, Rob Schmidt, Rupert Wainwright, Eduardo Rodriguez
Starring:Brandon Routh, Shiri Appleby, Elisabeth Moss, Cynthis Watros, Eric Roberts, John Billingsley, Russell Hornsby, Pablo Screiber, Stephen Lee, Stephen R Hart, Jack Noseworthy, Larry Gilliard Jr
Country: USA
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
A lot of folks went into Fear Itself expecting Masters of Horror series 3, and that approach was the wrong one. Having switched to network TV from cable, the immediate difference was the tighter control over violence, gore, nudity, sex and bad language – there's some stuff you can't show on the big leagues. Now, none of the preceding make a show, if anything they were just the lurid pink icing on what was at times a pretty tasty cake. With Masters of Horror the director for each episode was the lure for the audience, the problem that creator Mick Garris had was that there were only a finite number of directors he could have participate, and the common criticism was that the directors he used were either not "Masters", or were past their heyday. With Fear Itself, the emphasis seemed to change from being about the director to being about the story. Realistically, that's the correct approach to any film, whether short or feature, and yet at the same time the lack of strong direction in many of the episodes is what makes it a generally less than satisfying experience. Similarly, the fact that many of the directors aren't actually horror directors isn't sweetening the deal.

As with Masters of Horror, the series was thirteen episodes long (each episode being being 42 and 46 minutes long), but only eight of them were screened in the States, the poor ratings killing the show off prematurely; the five unscreened episodes are available here for the first time. The public perception before the show even screened was that its network nature would render it Masters of Horror-Lite, and while the absence of the nasty stuff shouldn't be a reason to write a show off, there seems to have been an effort made to address this with four of the episodes being presented in a "Director's Cut" version – with more gore, basically, and not really all that much of it. I'm assuming that this is to attract the kind of mindset that buys things solely based on their having an R18+ OFLC rating certificate, or having "Unrated Version" emblazoned across the front cover.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly was the inclusion of a "twist" ending in each and every episode, which I thought was kind of unnecessary, really. That kind of thing becomes rapidly intrusive, and quite often a cheat for the audience – it denies the events of the preceding 40 minutes and kind of renders what you've been investing in null and void, when handled by a less than competent writer. The Twilight Zone could always manage it pretty well, but Fear Itself doesn't have a Rod Serling, or a Richard Matheson, and certainly no Charles Beaumont, and many of the twists therefore provoke no other reaction than a roll of the eyes at best. Ah, and the ad breaks don't help to keep continuity or tension going, either, usually being preceded by a 'boo scare' the ad makes irrelevant.

The episodes are presented on four discs (three double sided, one single-sided), with two episodes to a side, except the final one being presented alone. Oddly, they aren't presented in their intended broadcast schedule, but as per follows:

Eater: Presented as a "Director's Cut", this episode is one of the stronger ones in the series – probably because having an actual horror director (Stuart Gordon, Re-Animator) in the driving seat would help in presenting a horror film. A paranoid and claustrophobic tale set in a police station, Eater tells the story of a cannibal serial killer with a difference, and the probationary officer who's spending the night as part of his guard. This is a far more effective, straight-forward and simply better film than either of Gordon's attempts in Masters of Horror. I'm no fan of Gordon's, but this is pretty good.

Spooked: Directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), this is a fair attempt at a ghost story; a private investigator is haunted by his own past, and questions the lengths to which he had to go in order to get confessions – when he enters a haunted house staking out a routine divorce case, things become rapidly grim.

Community: A bit of a riff on The Stepford Wives, this domestic drama/outsider story has a nasty undercurrent to it. Mary Harron (American Psycho) directs one of the more successful episodes, where a couple move into a seemingly idyllic town where things and people are not what they at first seem. One of the better episodes, and definitely worth your time and effort.

The Sacrifice: Breck Eisner (re-makes of The Crazies) directs this tale about a hunting party that's gone awry. Four young men have to hole up in an abandoned fort that's inhabited by three mysterious sisters, and something else, something very nasty indeed.

In Sickness and In Health: You'd expect that the episode helmed by the most experienced director would be the best one, right? Wrong. John Landis presents this truly atrocious piece of eye-cancer where the so-called twist is apparent before the pre-credit sequence is over. Words fail me at how utterly inept this epsiode truly was. The plot: on her wedding day, young bride-to-be Samantha receives a note which reads: "The person you are marrying is a serial killer." Let's see if you can guess the twist. Thought so.

Family Man: Haven't we had enough films and TV shows about people disastrously swapping personalities? Yes, we have, and most of them were in episodes of The Twilight Zone like "A Quality Of Mercy", which did it a lot better than this tale of a banker and a serial killer who share a near-death experience, and in doing so swap lives, so that the banker wakes up in the serial killer's body and vice-versa. A tired and tiresome idea that's been done much better many times before. Director Ronny Yu (Freddy Vs Jason) didn't think so. He was wrong.

Something With Bite: This vapid horror-comedy would have to be the nadir of the show. A vet is bitten by some kind of lycanthrope, which turns his life around for better and for worse. An excruciating saga that is inoffensive enough at first, but by the end has you wanting to drive iron spikes through your own face. Director Ernest Dickerson ("Heroes") actually deserves those spikes more than you. The general effect is like watching an episode of Tales From The Crypt, but without any of the sex, violence and comedy. Terrible.

New Year's Day: Leave it to director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2, Saw 3, Saw 4) to bring things back on to the horror track with this genuinely entertaining zombie apocalypse fright-fest. Another of the so-called "Director's Cut" episodes (and easily the most gruesome of them), New Year's Day actually manages to inject a little something into the standard zombie flick – namely, a story. The narrative unfolds in a pretty novel manner, and the twist I didn't see coming at all. The final scene is complete pants, but you can forgive this basically due to some of the neat zombie violence and horror on display. Recommended.

Skin and Bone: Another "Director's Cut" episode, this time directed by Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), Skin and Bone is the tale of the leader of a hunting party who returns to his ranch half-dead and without the rest of his party. He's lost an awful lot of weight, and is awful hungry, and his family have every right to be scared. While Fessenden is retreading familiar ground here, the episode starts brilliantly, but is let down by some limp comedic dialogue that really disappoints before a rock solid ending. Definitely worth a watch, if a little flawed in trying to maintain a tone of dread.

Chance: Another dud, this John Dahl (Road Kill) snooze-o-rama deals with the idea of people having an evil half that can appear outside of them and wreak some havoc. It's so lame and so poorly acted I can barely waste any time on it – another tired retread of an idea that Hanns Heinz Ewers did in The Student of Prague more effectively in 1919.

The Spirit Box: My only issue with this not-too-bad episode was that director Rob Schmidt (Wrong Turn) thought it'd be a great idea to make a teen-horror film. I hate teen horror. I hate it like poison. That aside, this is pretty tautly paced – the basic story is of two girls who make a "spirit box" - a kind of ouija board, and contact the spirit of a dead classmate. Turns out that her widely publicised suicide may well have been murder, and they decide to investigate, with some pretty unforeseen results. The lesson: regardless of the cause, the dead will not be mocked. Annoying setting and characters, but a pretty decent ghost story, nevertheless.

Echoes: Rupert Wainwright (re-make of The Fog) directs the last of the "Director's Cut" episodes in the tale of a fella who moves into a new house which provokes some god-awful deja vu. Does he have a previous life in this house as a murderer, or is he simply imagining things and increasingly losing his mind? In some regards it's vaguely reminiscent of The Shining, although with a more modern feel, and does feature some unnerving imagery, but there are also some quite inept moments of dialogue and acting. Still, a nice try, horror-wise, of melding the supernatural with the psychological.

The Circle: On a Halloween evening, a successful horror author with writer's block and a highly unsympathetic cast of characters attached to his careers sit about reading a book purported to be by the author, but he has no idea where it came from. Reading aloud from the book, something is called into existence, something evil and something vicious. The line between fiction and reality has blurred into something horrible and thirsting after human blood. A neat bit of self-reflexive horror ably directed by Eduardo Rodriguez (Curandero), this episode of Fear Itself is one of the best ones, and certainly one of the ones most deserving of the title of "horror film".

While as an experiment in creating short-film length horror, Fear Itself might not not have been 100% successful, at least it was still flying the flag for the genre, and for that at least you have to drop your pants in honour of what it set out to do. There was a lot to crinkle your brow at, much to be dissatisfied with, but still plenty to find to like. Have a watch and see what you make of it.

Presnted in a 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio the picture on each episode is certainly clear, although I noticed a vague sickly greenish yellow nature to the picture in many of the episodes. I guess this was meant to be helping create atmosphere. I just found it intrusive. Also, I did find that many episodes contained the kind of frentically edited, jump-cut stylings that I'm sure are meant to appeal to the MTV crowd – for the balding nearly forty crowd however, it's simply an annoyance.
Again, the sound seems fine, given the age of the show it'd be odd if it wasn't, but a reliance on a 5.1 soundtrack, combined with a very mobile camera, to engage the audience would seem to indicate you didn't have much faith in the writing or the acting, surely? Just an observation. This must be said: the theme music is awful. It's performed by some retardosaurus from the truly repellent nu-metal band System of a Down, and is the kind of metal-lite that makes my ears want to commit suicide. It's grating on the first listen, but wait until you get it thirteen times...
Extra Features
Each episode has a five to ten minute featurette called "Recipe For Fear" (and given the length, the emphasis is on "ette", not "feature"), with a grab-bag of soundbites from the cast and crew of the "Oh, we're making a horror show and it's so cool" school of interview response, intercut with spliced together footage of action scenes from the episode you've presumably just watched, which is hardly elucidating. Stuart Gordon at least tries to talk about the nature of creating horror that's actually horrific for a network TV show – relying on atmosphere over splatter, but the majority of these are a bit of a waste of time, frankly, and hardly equating to those kick-arse features on the discs of both seasons of Masters of Horror.

I suppose the packaging could be seen by some to be an "Extra", but frankly I would've preferred it if the four discs had been in a foldout digipak. My copy didn't stand up to the rigours of international post terribly well, and although it looks kind of neat, the words "fragile" and "impractical" spring to mind when I look at it. It's kind of annoying that the double-sided discs are placed on top of each other as well. Not only for access' sake, but also because I get very cautious of how my discs are stored, I don't like anything touching the surface of the disc itself – if something got in between the two discs (you know, when you lend things to other people and they don't take as good care with your stuff), you've just potentially fucked up four episodes – thus, one third of the season.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Look, I have to salute Mick Garris for trying to keep anthology horror TV shows, a favourite genre of mine, alive and in the public eye. I get the distinct impression with Fear Itself that he tried to dumb down the formula he'd established in the more artistically successful Masters of Horror, and many aspects of the show point pretty decisively to the fact that he must have tried to target a younger audience, too. This, in retrospect, was not a successful idea. That all said, I'd have to say that Fear Itself presents more hits than misses, and that if you dig the horror anthology type of show, then you should at least give it a shot. Sure, it doesn't pack the wallop of some of the best episodes of Masters of Horror, but then it doesn't really try to, as a) it can't given the restrictions placed upon it, and b) it's a series in its own right. I really hope that Garris gets another similar series off the ground sometime soon, because regardless of what any of his piss-ant detractors say (I mean, none of them add anything to the horror genre, do they? Worthless bastards smugly living out their lives via a keyboard, probably believing themselves to be the greatest judges of film on the planet), he tries to keep the dream alive for the rest of us, and while he may not always succeed, he never gives less than the ol' college try.

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