Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 16, 2009, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


When a TV series whose broadcast run got nipped in the bud re-emerges on DVD in its entirety, the hope is always that it will allow for the discovery of buried treasures. This was particularly so in the case of Fear Itself, since each of its 13 episodes was helmed by a different director, and only eight got aired before NBC quietly dropped it from the schedule in summer 2008.

Lionsgate’s new four-disc set, however, reveals that Fear Itself’s best stuff actually did make it to the tube the first time around, most notably the contributions by genre faves Stuart Gordon and Larry Fessenden. You can check out our previous reviews of the original eight via these links:

The Sacrifice/Spooked/Family Man

In Sickness and In Health

Eater

New Years Day

Community

Skin and Bones

Overall, the truncated season was a mixed bag, and the five entries newly visible on the DVDs do nothing to change the batting average. The best is probably The Circle (pictured above), thanks to its vivid direction by Eduardo Rodriguez, whose career-boosting 2005 feature Curandero still remains on the shelf, a situation made only more frustrating based on the skill he demonstrates here. The setting is a remote vacation house where living darkness threatens to overwhelm a horror novelist (Johnathon Schaech) and his friends and associates, who have gathered to goose him out of his writer’s block. In concert with cinematographer Alwyn J. Kumst, Rodriguez suffuses the scenario in palpable gloom and tension, with one encounter lit solely by flashlight that carries a crazy-scary vibe reminiscent of [REC].

His efforts are somewhat undercut, unfortunately, by Schaech and Richard Chizmar’s teleplay, an adaptation of Lewis Shiner’s great short story (in which the characters gather on Halloween night to trade scary stories; oddly, that premise is the one cited on the DVD case). A little expansion was obviously necessary for this 40-plus-minute showcase, but the new backstory is hokey, the change in emphasis unnecessarily complicated (the source of the evil is now two written works instead of one) and it raises certain plausibility issues; not to give too much away, but would an author who has stolen someone else’s work publish it under a pseudonym almost identical to the stealee’s name? Most crucially, the scripters alter Shiner’s conclusion in a manner that robs it of its scary irony. It’s a measure of Rodriguez’s talent that he elevates the bumpy narrative into something that does indeed generate some real fear.

That’s more than can be said for the other four newbies, and one of them doesn’t even try. Something With Bite, directed by Ernest Dickerson and written by Masters of Horror: Deer Woman’s Max Landis, is a would-be comic piece centering on veterinarian Wilbur Orwell (Wendell Pierce), who has a large, fanged, hairy “patient” brought into his office late one night. Bitten by the dying lycanthrope, Wilbur begins undergoing transformations of his own that supposedly change his life and outlook for the better—but the episode pays lip service to this idea instead of dramatizing it, frittering away the running time with unnecessary subplots about the initial beast’s “parents” and a nosy detective on Wilbur’s case.

Spirit Box, like The Circle, opens with trick-or-treaters on Halloween night, when two teenaged girls (Anna Kendrick from Twilight and Jessica Parker Kennedy) use the titular Ouija-like construction to try to contact the ghost of a deceased schoolmate. (Nice touch: they utilize a cell phone as the pointer.) The two succeed, and begin to suspect that the dead girl, who allegedly committed suicide, was actually murdered. Joe Gangemi’s script has a nice sting in its tail and it’s pacily helmed by Wrong Turn’s Rob Schmidt, but there’s an inescapable feeling through the first half-hour that the story is just marking time with familiar horror tropes up until that twist is sprung.

A more modern-noirish tone is set by Chance—not surprising, as it was directed by Red Rock West and The Last Seduction’s John Dahl. Working from a teleplay by his brother Rick and Lem Dobbs, he spins the tale of a down-and-out guy (Ethan Embry) who finds out that a potential financial windfall is actually a scam, and reacts with violence encouraged by his doppelganger. Embry’s solid in the lead and the tone feels right, but here again, the plot follows a path without many surprises or interesting digressions, and the resolution feels less dramatically inevitable than like an is-that-all-there-is? foregone conclusion.

Good/evil duality is further explored in Rupert Wainwright’s Echoes, scripted by Sean Hood. Two faces from recent horror remakes, The Hills Have Eyes’ Aaron Stanford and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Eric Balfour, star as a modern-day guy and a decades-old murderer whose path he seems doomed to follow. Not surprisingly coming from music-video/Stigmata veteran Wainwright, this is the most heavily stylized of these episodes, and it holds the attention, even though it’s more flashy than scary. It’s also one of the bloodier entries, as it’s presented here in a director’s cut with grisly moments that presumably would have gone unseen if it had made it to broadcast.

Eater, Skin and Bones and New Years Day are also seen here in director’s cuts, with restored bits of gory business that boost the running time of each by a minute or two (though Echoes, at 46 minutes, is actually the longest of them all). All 13 installments have been given fine 1.78:1 transfers with sharp Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes, and each is accompanied by a Recipe for Fear featurette running about five minutes. These offer a mix of quick on-set glimpses, the respective filmmakers discussing their approaches to horror and cast members gushing about their directors. Though several of the auteurs assert that they prefer a subtler brand of terror to explicit blood and guts, only Eater’s Gordon—not surprisingly—addresses the limitations that toiling for network TV imposes on the creation of screen fear. The other highlight among these segments is the one covering The Sacrifice, since director Breck Eisner has the most to say about the specifics of his episode, packing examinations of its location, the conception of its vampire and the creation of one of its nastiest gags into the brief time allotted.

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