To me, TV and movie anthologies are like Lucy holding the football in an old Peanuts cartoon: I know she’s going to pull the ball away and put me on my ass, but I can’t resist them anyway. They’re never wholly satisfying, but there’s always the hope that the next episode or short film will be a gem, and every once in a while, you’re rewarded for slogging through the endless misfires: Think of Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” on Masters Of Horror, Martin Scorsese’s segment in New York Stories, Federico Fellini’s entry in Spirits Of The Dead, or George Miller’s “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” from Twilight Zone: The Movie. Getting to the good stuff takes patience and perseverance, and oftentimes anthologies never pay off at all or not nearly enough to justify themselves.
And yet, when NBC announced a 13-episode summer horror anthology called Fear Itself, I leapt at the chance to cover it every week for TV Club. The basic idea was to do something similar to Showtime’s Masters Of Horror (and with the same executive producer, Mick Garris, leading the charge), only cleaned up for network television, and made palatable to a more general audience. I realize this sounds like a recipe for bland, defanged, mediocre TV horror, and yet the roster of directors is tantalizing: Brad Anderson (Session 9), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair), John Landis (American Werewolf In London), John Dahl (Red Rock West) and Darren Bousman, the dude responsible for the last three Saw movies. Some of these filmmakers are going to whiff—most of them, probably—but there’s always that chance that someone will put off something great within these very restrictive parameters. And so for the next 13 weeks—or until NBC inevitably pulls the series for more Deal Or No Deal episodes—I’ll be in this space, praying along with you that Lucy won’t pull another bait-and-switch.
Alas, tonight’s premiere episode, “The Sacrifice” turns out to be exactly the sort of middle-of-the-road fare that I’d feared this show would put out on semi-regular basis. Directed by Breck Eisner—who won some infamy for being both the son of former Disney honcho Michael Eisner and the man responsible for helming the mega-bomb Sahara—the episode goes through some rote horror paces with engaging proficiency, but there’s not a single memorable moment in it. It’s just an okay time-passer, which interests me less than an outright disaster, because disasters at least have a little personality to them.
Careening down a remote backroad after some unnamed crime gone wrong, four young men in an SUV hit a spike in the road and wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere. With one of them gutshot and in need of immediate medical attention, they desperately seek out help and come upon a mysterious fortress at the end of a forest path. Once inside, they find a situation that’s more than a little too good to be true: Three comely young sirens, appearing all-too-eager to treat the wounded man, feed them, and perhaps treat them to other forms of hospitality, too. (“I could use a little help… in the barn,” says one, proving how far you can stretch innuendo past the censors).
Basically, “The Sacrifice” is a lot like The Village, only without the twist. The women live like the pioneers, with no electricity or other 20th century amenities, and there’s the threat of a creature that needs some flesh-and-bone satiation on occasion. Except here the creature isn’t a town elder running around in a furry costume, but a more tangible and menacing presence. The big reveal isn’t hard to see coming—and once it does, it raises another set of questions—and there’s not much flavor in the dialogue and atmospherics, which are both pretty by-the-numbers.
The best that can be said about “The Sacrifice” is that at least it gets the job done, and maybe that explains why Fear Itself debuted with it rather than roll the dice with chancier material. Just based on the 15-second preview snippet at the end of this episode, it certainly looks like Brad Anderson’s contribution next week, with Eric Roberts bringing the crazy, has the potential to break hard one way or the other. Here’s hoping that future episodes won’t be watered-down so much to suit the suits.
• Series producer Mick Garris also wrote tonight’s episode, and if that name sounds familiar, you probably know him as Stephen King’s auteur-of-choice in the television arena. He was responsible for that abominable King-approved miniseries version of The Shining, Sleepwalkers, The Stand, and a forthcoming adaptation of Bag Of Bones.
• When the ample-bosomed seductress lured one of them into a pit, surely I wasn’t the only one saying, “It puts the lotion in the basket.”
• Nice to see Jesse Plemons, beloved to many as Landry on Friday Night Lights, put in a nice performance. He was the only one of the four men to make any kind of comedic or dramatic impression.
• How many axes did these women keep in that fortress? It seemed like there was one within arm’s length at all times. And for that matter, where did the guys get all the machine guns?
• After 10 p.m. on network television, impalements are a go!