In theory, an anthology series should be all about trying new things. Each new episode is its own universe; with no recurring characters or plotlines to adhere to, the possibilities are only limited by budget and whatever basic connective tissue defines the show. So why is it that Fear Itself, a 13-episode horror anthology that aired on NBC, feels so instantly tired? Created by Mick Garris as the major-network follow-up to Showtime’s Masters Of Horror, the series spends its brief run regurgitating the same clichéd tropes and twist endings that’ve been staples of the genre for decades. There are vampires, werewolves, witches, and zombies on hand, all behaving to type, and plots play out for the most part with a leaden, grim determination. Out of the 13, only a handful live up to their potential. The rest run through the paces joylessly, hitting their marks with all the enthusiasm of a 40-year-old porn star.
The problem is largely structure. Episodes like “Echoes,” about a young man who moves into a house with some bad memories, or “New Year’s Day,” about a party aftermath with chilling consequences, establish their main hook early on, then spend the reminder of their time on predictable scare sequences that are less about mood than about padding things along ’til the big reveal of the final moments. In something under half an hour long this could be bearable, but stretched to more than 40 minutes, it’s a slog, especially when the reveal is either telegraphed with a baseball bat or completely nonsensical. Amusingly, John Landis’ “In Sickness And In Health” manages both, although it’s easier to appreciate the audacity than to actually enjoy it.
The run isn’t a complete waste. “Chance” could’ve used a few script touch-ups, but John Dahl’s clever direction and a fun lead turn from Ethan Embry hold it together; “The Circle” overcomes some trite elements and mediocre acting to generate a decent, though forgettable, tale. Fear Itself’s two best entries are worth seeking out: “Skin And Bones” makes the most of Doug Jones' gaunt presence, casting him as a rancher who survives getting lost in the wild, only to bring something back home that was better left lost. And “Eater,” directed by Stuart Gordon, is as good—and as deeply disturbing—as horror on television gets. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss plays a rookie cop forced to fend for herself against a cannibal with dark powers; the resulting struggle is a sweaty, smart, unsettling piece of uncompromised filmmaking. Buried amid the mediocrity, “Skin” and “Eater” prove that the horror anthology isn’t dead—it just needs something stronger to chew on.
Key features: Short interviews with the directors of each episode.