Horror on television has always been considered difficult to do, but one can always argue that horror on the big screen doesn’t exactly have a 100% track record of success either. Therefore perhaps it’s not surprising that horror anthology TV shows can be patchy affairs. Patchy, however, does mean good as well as bad, and shows like NIGHT GALLERY (Camera Obscura), HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (The Two Faces of Evil) and MASTERS OF HORROR (Cigarette Burns) have all had their moments of glory, even if those of us who stuck with the entire run of all of those shows were also left with the feeling that perhaps overall they could have done better. That feeling was no more in evidence for me with the last series on that list, which used the fact that each episode would be directed by an acclaimed ‘master’ of the form as an expectation setter that had little hope of succeeding, and indeed it was only John Carpenter’s episode that emerged as the kind of thing one was hoping every episode would be. Another series followed, with some of the directors boasting rather questionable cinematic qualifications for them to be considered a ‘Master’ and that series was similarly hit and mostly miss.
In most walks of life, the more practice one has at something the better one tends to get – playing the piano, transplanting kidneys, and (one hopes) producing horror television series. Sadly sometimes the more one does something the more it becomes apparent that one isn’t suited to it at all and that one should probably be doing something else. It was therefore with some trepidation after the two ‘Masters’ series that I approached producer / creator Mick Garris’ third attempt at the form.
The first couple of seconds of the first episode of FEAR ITSELF are promising. The opening titles consist of a series of well-photographed unsettling images. A shame, then, that these are accompanied by a quite terrible (and terribly annoying) theme tune reminiscent of a particularly bad 1970s Eurovision Song Contest entry. It’s with that ringing in our ears that we are introduced to the first episode. I’m aware that the running order on US television may have been a little different (and somewhat non-existent as the show was pulled after eight of its thirteen episode run) so the rest of this column makes recourse to the running order of the DVD box set that’s now available
Side one of disk one kicks off with Brad Anderson’s ‘Spooked’. Eric Roberts plays a cop whose unorthodox methods get him fired when he goes a little too far with one of the suspects he’s torturing and the young man dies. The fact that Roberts’ actions enable a senator’s son to be saved means that Eric gets away with sacking and loss of pension rather than anything more severe. Years later he’s changed his surname and is now running a private detective agency called ‘Bender Investigations’ (someone really has to tell US TV people that that word has entirely different connotations in the UK). Employed to prove that a woman’s husband is having an affair he finds himself setting up his surveillance cameras in The House Across The Street, which just happens to be Anderson’s version of a suburban haunted house, and a very good one it is too. Graffiti on the walls incorporates images that with a bit of CGI animation lead to the creepiest and most effective moments in the episode. Saying any more would spoil the story but suffice to say this is yet another Brad Anderson project where the male central character has to undergo psychological torment for some terrible act he has committed in his past. So far so good.
The second episode is ‘Eater’, directed by Stuart Gordon. This is the second time that Pete Crowther’s short story, originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine, has been adapted for television. The first was as part of the UK Channel Five series URBAN GOTHIC where the story was told in half the time, had a more effective villain and a better ending. Here the cannibalistic body-switching killer of the title is a singing Cajun who is seen far too much and despite giving the villain a set of scary teeth Gordon keeps everything too well lit and that, coupled with a silly and impractical ending, makes this one a disappointment.
Flipping the disk over we are treated to Mary Harron’s 'Community', a surprisingly effective little piece about the age-old (but always relevant) theme of gated privileged communities that have a Deep Dark Secret. Brandon Routh (Bryan Singer’s Superman) and Shiri Appleby (from ROSWELL) can’t afford to move out of their grim little apartment. However the news that they are trying for a baby results in them being welcomed with open arms (and a ridiculously low mortgage rate) into an exclusive suburban residential community. Discovering that one of their neighbours only has one leg is just the start of their problems as they realise they really should have read the small print on the paperwork, especially the bit about the consequences if they don’t actually have a baby within six months. It’s a fine little piece of TV horror and more than makes up for the slightly lacking 'The Sacrifice', which completes disc one. Breck Eisner’s direction delivers a nicely atmospheric tale with some great sets but the story about a gang of utterly unlikeable villains coming across a group of gorgeous young girls living in what looks like a concentration camp in the middle of nowhere doesn’t really work.
Onto disk two and John Landis’ 'In Sickness and In Health', which in better days and another country would have made a very enjoyable giallo. As it is people who are in the habit of looking for twists will see this one coming a mile off as a bride receives a note on the day of her wedding that suggests all may not be as it seems with her intended. William B Davis (of X FILES Smoking Man fame) does a nice turn as a deaf priest but it’s not enough to make this episode special.
In fact that’s the problem with the series overall, and what dogged MASTERS OF HORROR, the series this is heir to – there aren’t enough strong episodes to justify watching the entire series. Anyone who wants to dip in, however, should be directed with all speed towards Larry Fessenden’s ‘Skin & Bones’, which continues the director’s obsession with the wendigo myth. This time it’s thinner than thin itself actor Doug Jones who gets possessed by the wandering evil spirit and develops a taste for his own family in their remote farm in the woods. Jones is properly scary as the possessed creature and any familiar with Fessenden’s work will be pleased to hear this story doesn’t disappoint. Another honourable mention deserves to go to Ronny Yu (director of BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY Vs. JASON) whose ‘Family Man’ is an entertaining body swap horror in which loving husband and father Colin Ferguson finding himself in the body of a serial killer facing a death sentence, who is now free to prey on Ferguson’s family. A cracking ending makes this a decent little slice of TV horror in a series that sadly doesn’t deliver on its title promise anywhere near as often as it should, but hopefully anyone picking up the box set now has a few pointers on what might be worth watching first.