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The 2008 Autopsy Report: Fear Itself

Where is it and what went wrong?

The 2008 Autopsy Report is a month-long look at the year in horror. An unflinching and frank examination of the genre’s accomplishments, lapses, trends and random (or, rampant) stupidity in the big screen, television and direct-to-DVD world. This weekly series will sift through the detritus of the last twelve months and see what worked and what didn’t, why and why not. Ultimately, the Autopsy Report will culminate in our year-end best and worst of 2008 list.

Showtime cornered the market on televised horror anthologies in 2005 with Masters of Horror. The series survived two seasons while TNT tried Nightmares and Dreamscapes on for size siphoning from the always reliable Stephen King well. Interest in small screen anthologies was stirring. This year, horror fans got NBC’s Fear Itself. The thirteen episode summertime series promoted heavily in the second quarter of 2008 kicked off on June 5th to mixed reviews and ratings that could not best contender Swingtown over at rival CBS. Despite the network’s suspect positive response in the trade papers boasting the show’s opening performance, Fear Itself‘s ratings were unimpressive yet steady through its run to July 31st when it took a break after its eighth episode Skin and Bones. Then the Olympics coverage began followed by the onslaught of news-grabbing political election exposure. Fear Itself never returned and, at the time of this writing, five episodes remain produced yet missing in action. Airdates unknown.

But is anyone really surprised by its absence and NBC’s seemingly abandonment of the series? If you wanted to look at some of the worst mini-movies coming out of today’s horror filmmakers, you only need turn to Fear Itself. The episodes aired ranged from fair to poor. The lowest point being John Landis’ installment In Sickness and In Health and the pinnacle, arguably, being Stuart Gordon’s entry, an average cat and mouse voodoo-laced thriller called Eater. Fear Itself was simply a refashioned Masters of Horror, affixed with the same allure (recognized names in the genre writing and directing) and burdened by the same problems. And it’s little wonder why – Industry Entertainment and Mick Garris developed both titles.

Essentially, Masters of Horror, a series that struggled to return to Showtime for a third season, was packaged in ’07 with a new title. It found a new home at NBC under the moniker Fear Itself with Lionsgate committed to take over home video distribution duties. (Starz Entertainment’s Anchor Bay Entertainment held that mantle on MoH.) Then as the WGA strike swamped Hollywood, Garris stepped down as showrunner (he still receives proper credit) and the series producers sped up their script delivery dates before principal photography began in Canada. Directors exercising their allegiance to Garris allegedly declined to participate in the Fear foray. Tobe Hooper was one no-show who was in negotiations for a spell but it was John Carpenter who was the most vocal about bowing out.

Rushed scripts, capricious directors and talks of last minute rewrites by Canadian scribes. Fear Itself‘s formula for success was looking questionable. Still, it attracted some Masters of Horror vets (Gordon, Brad Anderson, Landis, Ernest Dickerson) and welcomed a number of promising newcomers like Eduardo Rodriguez (a last-minute entry), Larry Fessenden and John Dahl to name a few. And all had to consider their horror tales were going to be seen by a wider audience, one that wasn’t necessarily going to groove to the “go for the throat” maxim Masters of Horror liberally embraced in season two. The producers insisted, however, that the horror fans would not be disappointed by the series’ shocking subject matter.

The show did live up to the producers’ promise of grisly imagery in some respects (if it wasn’t enough for some there’s always the uncut DVD to come); that’s vapid praise when offering an overall assessment of the show. There was a certain miasma of mediocrity enshrouding Fear Itself. Granted, the show bobbed at the surface with original stories in a sea of genre remakes but shoddy stories and scripts hardly gave it any identity. With a few exceptions, the producers reached for bland television talent rather than boost the value of the show with big screen names. (Seeing Doug Jones in one episode was perhaps the biggest highlight.) Fear Itself was filler. Filler NBC revealed it no longer needed as the network has voiced no plans to air the remaining episodes. (Read episode-specific reviews here.)

What happens now? That’s to be decided by the programmers. The powers-that-be at NBC may drop the remaining episodes into a free slot in their schedule or decide some other plan of attack. After talking to a few insiders we know this: Lionsgate can’t release Fear Itself on DVD until the show contractually runs its course at NBC. When I spoke to a network rep in September, I was informed they “had no plans” at that time to air the final five episodes. So it remains a waiting game. NBC could feasibly kick it over to the Universal-owned Chiller; it would certainly freshen up the musty genre channel loaded with reruns and repeat airings of House of Frankenstein 1997. Or, the network could just forfeit the entire series to Lionsgate and grant its home video division the opportunity to release the entire series with (I can see the advertising now) “five unreleased episodes!”

Fear Itself had its audience and they’re keen to see the final entries, as is this writer, in spite of my negative criticism of the show. But my curiosity is driven purely by hope that the series isn’t a complete wash. Then again, eight out of thirteen episodes did little to allay my fear that creating an arresting and scary horror anthology series is a dying craft.

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor