Broadcast Year: 2008
US DVD Release Date: September 15, 2009
Running Time: 593 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Movie: 3 out of 5
Desperate for alternative programming, NBC debuted Fear Itself as a summer replacement series in May 2008, and was promoted as 13 short films from some of horror’s top directors and writers. If that sounds vaguely familiar to Showtime’s Master’s of Horror, it should, as Fear Itself shares many of the same producers (Andrew Deane, Adam Goldworm, Ben Browning) and both shows were created by Mick Garris (best known for his mini-series adaptations of Stephen King novels). After eight weeks, NBC pre-empted the series for the 2008 Summer Olympics, but Fear Itself never returned until FearNet picked up the remaining five episodes. Lionsgate, which also produced the series, has now released all 13 episodes in a 4-disc boxed set.
Like most anthology series, Fear Itself is rather uneven, with some really good episodes, and some pretty lousy ones The series is a good showcase for its directors, as long as they are up to the challenge of creating fear and terror in the audience while staying within both the network’s standards and practices and FCC regulations. The boxed set, on four DVD-10 discs (double-sided, single-layered), includes two episodes per side, but not in broadcast order. It doesn’t really matter which order these episodes are viewed, but it would have been nice to have seen them arranged that way
Disc 1, Side A
Eater / 3.5 out of 5
Stuart Gordon (ReAnimator) directs Emmy-nominee Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) as the only female rookie police officer (who also likes horror movies) in a squad of male chauvinists, who have a cannibalistic serial killer in custody. Based on a short story by Peter Crowther, the teleplay by Richard Chizmar and Jonathon Schaech is dark, and much of the story is contained within the police squad. Moss is very good here, a complete 180 from her role as the president’s youngest daughter on The West Wing, giving her character the right balance of smarts, toughness, and green to make her believable. This episode is labeled as a “director’s cut,” but I did not notice anything drastically different from when I first saw this episode on NBC last summer.
Spooked / 3 out of 5
Eric Roberts is Harry Bender, a former police detective turned private investigator who has a knack of getting results, regardless of the cost. He also has a secret in his past that he has suppressed since childhood. When a woman hires Harry to watch her house to catch her husband cheating on her, strange things begin to happen during the stakeout that eventually draw out that suppressed secret. Director Brad Anderson (Transiberian, episodes of Fringe) creates an unsettling mood throughout, with some good thrills inside the stakeout house of horrors.
Disc 1, Side B
Community / 3 out of 5
Brandon Routh continues in Christopher Reeve’s footsteps in this story of a young couple buying a home in a gated, close-knit community in the suburbs, borrowing heavily from Village of the Damned and The Stepford Wives. The couple soon learn that the community is a bit too close-knit when neighbors are more than happy to help them conceive a child; when a women is found cheating on her husband, she is stoned in the town square. If you thought your homeowners association’s CC&R’s were too stringent, The Commons seems like it’s under martial law. Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) brings a real sense of underlying creepiness to the community, telling the story in small chunks of time. Shiri Appleby is a delight as Routh’s wife, and John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise) is notable as the tortured neighbor next door who is at his breaking point.
The Sacrifice / 3.5 out of 5
Four criminals, one critically wounded, are on the run along the wilderness back roads after a job went bad, only to have their truck break down in the middle of nowhere. They seek shelter in a fort inhabited by three young women, who offer to feed them and tend to their wounds. As night falls, they discover that the fort wasn’t built to keep people out, but to contain the vampire living within. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, but director Breck Eisner (Sahara and the upcoming Creature of the Black Lagoon remake) shows, as he did in Steven Spielberg’s alien abduction mini-series Taken, that he is a very capable director, using interesting camera angles and lighting to bring a bit of freshness to a vampire tale.
Disc 2, Side A
In Sickness And In Health / 2 out of 5
As a bride (Maggie Lawson) is about to be married to Carlos (James Roday), someone slips her a note, saying “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.” She keeps the note to herself, proceeds with the wedding, but then begins to notice her new husband acting strange, leaving the audience faced with the question, “Is the note true?” In Sickness And In Health is, perhaps, the weakest episodes of the series, mostly because it is just plain dull. Director John Landis (Animal House, An American Werewolf In London) can’t seem to be able to build much tension or suspense in the story, and by the end, I found myself wondering, “Was that it?”
Family Man / 3.5 out of 5
Colin Ferguson (SyFy’s Eureka) is a loving, religious family man and banker. After a near-death car accident, he awakes and finds he has switched bodies with Clifton Collins, Jr. (Sunshine Cleaning, Crank 2), a psychotic serial killer who killed his entire family at age 12. Director Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky, Freddie Vs. Jason) brings a freshness to the soul-switching sub-genre, and Colin Ferguson is sweet and caring in the first five minutes, and simply terrifying for the remainder of the episode.
Disc 2, Side B
Something With Bite / 4 out of 5
Wilbur (Wendell Pierce) is a veterinarian who is losing touch with his family. One evening, a man drops off a creature he had just run over with his truck into Wilbur’s clinic. The creature inevitably bites the vet just before dying. The following evening, Wilbur notices changes in himself as he suddenly has more energy, heightened senses, and a newfound interest in his wife. But not all is good – Wilbur is having blackouts and when his slacker assistant who has blown off showing up for work to instead play videogames is brutally attacked and murdered, Wilbur soon suspects that he may have been responsible.Something With Bite reminded me of both Joe Dante’s classic werewolf film, The Howling, and John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London, with its humor and approach to storytelling. And with good reason – the teleplay was written by Max Landis, son of John. Director Ernest Dickerson seems an odd choice, as he really doesn’t have any history of horror on his resume, but he gets the job done in spades, making this one of the better episodes of the series. It’s a shame this was one of the five episodes that did not air on NBC.
New Year’s Day / 1.5 out of 5
A young woman (Briana Evigan) wakes up to find the world overrun with zombies. I could write more, but that is really all that happens in this episode, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV), who, with the help of writers Steve Niles and Ben Sokolowski, brings absolutely nothing new to the zombie genre. This is another episode labeled as a director’s cut, but I cannot recall any difference between this and the broadcast version.
Disc 3, Side A
Skin and Bones / 3 out of 5
Doug Jones (Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) plays a rancher thought to have been killed in the mountains during a fierce storm and returns home looking like death warmed over. Apparently, to survive, he developed an appetite for human flesh. Skin and Bones is a cross between a morality play, The Exorcist, and even references director Larry Fessenden’s own film Wendigo. The real highlight of this episode is Doug Jones’ performance, both creepy and tortured. This is another episode labeled as a director’s cut, but I cannot recall any difference between this and the broadcast version.
Chance / 2 out of 5
Borrowing heavily from two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s works (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bottle Imp), Ethan Embry is a man at the end of his ropes, desperate to sell a vase to settle his debts. When double-crossed by an antiques dealer, the vase seems to bring out his evil side, killing the dealer and anyone else who gets in his way in the process. The episode is a confusing mess, with a lot of dialogue and not much suspense or thrills. Director John Dahl had a string of art house hits in the 90s (Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), but here he seems to be going through the motions, moving the story at a snail’s pace.
Disc 3, Side B
The Spirit Box / 3 out of 5
On Halloween, high school classmates Shelby (Anna Kendrick) and Becca (Jessica Parker Kennedy) create a Spirit Box as a way of conducting a séance. When they contact a former student thought to have committed suicide and discover she was murdered, the dead student helps them solve her murder. Although director Rob Schmidt (The Alphabet Killer) resorts to clichéd horror tactics, the story is told at a nice pace with enough thrills to keep you entertained.
Echoes / 3 out of 5
Stephan (Aaron Stanford) moves into a house and begins to have visions he believes to be déjà vu of himself in a prior life. As the visions become more and more gruesome, he wonders if he was a sadistic killer (Eric Balfour) in his former life. Director Rupert Wainwright (The Fog) has created a very stylistic, psychological thriller as we see Stephan’s former life as Max through his hypnotic sessions with his psychologist, and then descends into madness. This is another episode labeled as a director’s cut, but since NBC never aired this episode, it is difficult to notice any difference between this and the intended broadcast version, although this episode is much more graphic and violent than the others included in this set.
Disc 4, Side A
The Circle / 3 out of 5
A group of friends gather on Halloween to try to jolt a novelist out of writer’s block. Unfortunately, the novelist has been stealing someone else’s works, and must now live through one of those stories. Director Eduardo Rodriguez (Daughter, Curandero) manages to generate some real tension and thrills from a weak teleplay by Richard Chizmar and Johnathon Schaech (who also stars as the plagiarizing novelist).
Video: 3.5 out of 5
Since Fear Itself is a series of short films, each episode has its own stylized look. Each episode is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. That said, detail is generally very good, colors are not oversaturated, flesh tones look natural (when appropriate), with noise and compression artifacts at a minimum.
Audio: 3.5 out of 5
Overall, the sound design for the series is equal to most feature films, in Dolby Digital 5.1 and encoded at 448 kbps, making good use of the surround channels, with intelligible dialogue, although LFE is somewhat weak.
Special Features: 2 out of 5
Each episode includes a five minute documentary focusing on the director, entitled Recipe For Fear, which also first appeared on FearNet’s website. The featurettes don’t go into much detail, and have more of an EPK feel to them. Still, they are better than nothing.
My one real complaint with the set has to do with the packaging. The episodes could have easily been arranged in broadcast order and on four DVD-9s rather than DVD-10s (like most, I do not like double-sided discs). Also, while the packaging looks cool at first glance, it is rather flimsy and the discs are housed two discs per hub.
Overall: 3 out of 5
Although uneven, Fear Itself is a series that was not given a fair chance by its network. Lionsgate’s presentation is good, but the packaging is a letdown.