Fear Itself

As he and three fellows ride bumpily over snowy and desolate roads, Lemmon (Jesse Plemons) wonders. Why, he asks, does the latest adventure engineered by his older brother “seem like some really bad version of Deliverance?” Intent on driving, Point (Jeffrey Pierce) shuts down discussion, though the grumbling is only re-piqued when the vehicle slams into a spike on the road. Now the gang has to transport their wounded buddy along with their gear across a frozen lake that seems to stretch to nowhere.

Except it doesn’t. The foursome’s destination was sealed as soon as they headed down that long wrong road, or, whenever that was. Such backstory details are omitted in “The Sacrifice,” the first episode in NBC’s 13-week horror anthology Fear Itself. It’s clear enough they’re criminals, but the show focuses on their pressing immediate quandary — how to tend to their bloodied and mostly moaning associate Diego (Stephen Martines) — in order to grind the plot quickly into the encounter with a trio of pretty sisters who speak old-tymey English and wear their hair loose and tangled.

The girls — healer and herbalist Chelsea (Rachel Miner), vampy Virginia (Mircea Monroe), and mute Tara (Michelle Molineux) — are instantly suspect, but the guys, intent on their own superiority, can’t see it. Why is it that men on the run — men bloodied and anxious, men with guns — are so easily waylaid by long-haired girls in gauzy dresses? You may briefly ponder this question as you also note resemblances between “The Sacrifice” (directed by Breck Eisner) and The Beguiled, that now quaint but still unnerving Clint Eastwood movie about Confederate schoolgirls who punish a Union soldier, severely. Like Eastwood’s Corporal McBurney, Point and company imagine themselves in control of their manly, apparently violent world as well as this new one they’ve just stepped into. Self-appointed spokesperson Chelsea declares their collective preference for the simple life: “We’ve never been outside these walls,” she says demurely. When the guys don’t pick up on this obvious clue to certain death, she offers another: “Our people have lived here a long time, we know how to take care of ourselves.” Persisting in their self-delusions, the men will, of course, suffer grisly consequences.

Such combination of arrogance and ignorance is a familiar one for victims in horror, and is revisited in the next two episodes of Fear Itself, the reincarnation of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror (the anthology for which he wrote 11 episodes and which Showtime did not renew). For network, the language is tamped down but the expected blood, dark shadows, and scary places are firmly in place. The second episode, “Spooked,” actually begins with an intriguingly topical notion, that a cop named Harry (Eric Roberts, looking appropriately broken) is given to torturing suspects in order to extract crucial information as to victims’ whereabouts. Though his fellow cops appreciate his hard-balling, IAD decides that his latest infraction — which leads to the slashed-neck death of Rory (Jack Noseworthy) during the episode’s first two minutes — is one too many. “Fifteen years later,” Harry’s a private dick, moderately paid for taping the sexual infidelities of sleazebags.

If his focus is currently dimmed by long nights of hard drinking, Harry remains convinced of his essential credo, “Sometimes you gotta do wrong, to make things right.” Come to find out this self-justification is handed down by his big bad dad (revealed in odiously close-framed flashbacks) and that indeed, this particular torturer is plagued by intensely personal history. It’s an uninspired plot point that undermines what seems, initially, a broader point about torture as a systemic problem (Jack Bauer has his own daddy issues, we now know). It also helps to sideline Harry’s detective business partner James (Larry Gilliard Jr.), relegated to surveillance from a far-away van while Harry has to encounter his own demons inside the designated scary place (which in itself recalls the far more effective investigations of space-and-memory in director Brad Anderson’s fairly brilliant films Session 9 and The Machinist). Harry’s predictable confrontation with himself (scripted by Matt Venne) is bloody but dull, set inside “a house that just shows you what it wants to show you, one thing about yourself that you can’t live with.” Here the one thing is neither revelatory nor shocking.

In yet another story of manhood in serious need of rejiggering, “Family Man,” directed by Ronny Yu and airing 19 June, Dennis (Colin Ferguson) is the titular character, happily suburban, with a wife (Josie Davis) who makes special pancakes and one young child of each gender. His perfect if mundane existence is busted up by Chucky-like encounter with a child molester and serial killer, Richard (Clifton Collins). Rightly unsettled by a body-switch plot (that recalls as well Face-Off), Dennis is soon stuck in prison, arguing with his uncomprehending lawyer, while Richard is living the church-going, pancake-eating life. By the time the dad is calling his sweet little daughter from prison and the killer is threatening to call the police, the episode has pretty much exhausted its through-the-looking-glass possibilities.

Like the previous episodes, this one explores a man’s sudden confrontation with the gap between expectations and experiences. It’s sad for Dennis, exhilarating for Richard, and a little tedious for the rest of us, who have seen such exploration before.

RATING 5 / 10