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Nothing to fear from 'Fear Itself'

June 05, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

There is no arguing with horror. People like to be scared and will pay good money for it, and though it is common enough to regard the more egregious products of the genre as potentially the end of civilization -- I often do myself -- it has been not ending civilization for quite some time now.

It's been nearly 100 years since the first film version of "Frankenstein," which was written nearly 100 years before that. But Sophocles knew something way back when about the shock ending and the use of blood. (Oedipus puts out his own eyes -- how cool is that?) Dante's trip through hell is a road map for the kind of payback that is at the heart of the contemporary ghost story. Shakespeare did good things with spirits, not always friendly. The Book of Revelation -- Hollywood steals from that all the time.

Given so much history, there is little new in "Fear Itself," an appropriately numbered 13-episode anthology series that begins tonight on NBC. As seems the rule under network honcho Ben Silverman, it revives the corpse of an earlier series, in this case Showtime's "Masters of Horror," brought to you by the same team. (Or most of it: Creator Mick Garris left "Fear Itself" after non-union Canadian writers tweaked scripts in his strike-mandated absence.) But its line goes back farther than that, to "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" and their remakes, to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Tales From the Darkside," "Amazing Stories," and elsewhere. There is usually a monster somewhere on television.

The series is offered as a kind of all-star conclave of suspense specialists, including directors Mary Harron ("American Psycho"), John Landis ("An American Werewolf in London"), Darren Bousman (three "Saw" films), John Dahl ("The Last Seduction") and Stuart Gordon ("Re-Animator"). That will mean more to some than to others. It's a little difficult to judge the whole on the basis of the three episodes made available for review, when each is different enough to suggest that something unpredictably great may be coming later. (That is perhaps whistling in the dark.) What they do have in common is wintry Canadian weather, a general lack of humor without having much serious to say and the fact that they are not particularly scary. And I am not hard to scare.

Tonight's opener, "The Sacrifice," directed by Breck Eisner from a script by Garris (from a story by Del Howison), is the most stylishly "cinematic" of the episodes I've seen; it takes advantage of the wintry weather and snowy, stripped-bare landscape. Eisner's attention to mood takes up the slack in a meat and potatoes story -- it begins with a car breaking down on a lonely back road -- that is surprising only in the details. Jesse Plemons ("Friday Night Lights") is good as a talkative victim.

Next week's "Spooked" stars Eric Roberts, no stranger to this genre, as a violent detective who gets a belated comeuppance in a haunted house. From the very beginning, when Roberts beats out of a kidnapping suspect the information that a missing child is, um, upstairs, it has a credibility problem, but it also feels cluttered and confused. Brad Anderson -- who made the horror flick "The Machinist" and the lovely "Next Stop Wonderland" -- directed, with less poetry than I would have expected. The following "The Family Man," from Ronny Yu ("Freddy vs. Jason"), involves Colin Ferguson ("Eureka") in a supernatural brain swap with a serial killer. The twist at the end is neat, but there is something arbitrary and unformed and unpersuasive about what leads to it.

It doesn't help that we know these routines so well: the thing in the dark, the thing at the window, the thing you cannot kill, the thing you can kill only with a silver bullet or a wooden stake or some other special thing the writer dreamed up, the thing inside your head, the creaking door, the suddenly appearing hand, the stumbled-upon icky bit, the eerie coincidence, the person who is not what he seems, and all those ghosts, vampires, wolf men, psychos and so on.

Perhaps that's why contemporary horror goes to increasingly explicit extremes; starved for new ideas, it just turns the screws. Anticipatory Web chatter reflects an apprehension that, reined in by broadcast network rules and conventions, "Fear Itself" will have no kick. Kids these days want nothing left to the imagination. And yet I wouldn't say that what I've seen of the series founders on a lack of gore (or its frequent partner, sex). It's the usual stuff: involving stories, believable characters, a reason to care enough to scream.



'Fear Itself'

Where: NBC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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