Fear Itself is the spiritual successor of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. When Showtime was no longer willing to fund the anthology horror series, Lionsgate stepped in to finance a new season. The show found a new home on NBC and became Fear Itself. Each episode is a 45 minute film from an established or emerging horror director.
In “The Sacrifice,” four criminals on the run wind up in the middle of nowhere with a broken down car. They escape through a snowy landscape by foot, leaving them stranded in a remote fort with no way to call for help for a dying member of their party. A trio of sisters live there, largely avoiding the tools and traditions of modern life. It’s like the criminals have wandered into a place stuck in the past.
Every season of Masters of Horror featured a relative newcomer to directing who had a breakout indie hit shortly before the series began. Fear Itself is no exception. In fact, Fear Itself featured a significant number of newer directors early in their careers.
Breck Eisner broke out in the horror world in a strange way. His two breakout films were pilots for TV shows. At the time, his The Invisible Man made for TV movie for the Sci Fi (now SyFy) channel was their highest rated show of all time. He followed this up with Thoughtcrimes, a backdoor pilot for USA Network that never got picked up and was released straight to video. Eisner is a director who specializes in ensemble action/thrillers set in alternate universes not too far removed from our own.
This episode sets the standard for what NBC was willing to let a horror series get away with. There is gore, but nothing more severe than what you would see in a primetime medical drama. There is sexual tension, but the characters in these stories will remain clothed. Action/horror stories will have a clear role in the series. It’s not that Fear Itself has to censor itself to fit on network TV; it has to transform to appeal to a wider audience. It’s the shift from indie to studio horror that most directors and writers who find success in the genre have to make.
“The Sacrifice” is a great start to the series. It’s a suspenseful short film filled with nods to a lot of folklore and history. Series producer and writer Mick Garris’ screenplay is familiar in a good way. It has the expected beats of a slasher story without being overly reliant on gore. The frontier setting and mechanisms for scares stand out among horror in the late 00’s.
This story is all about the layers of reveals. As the night grows longer and the body count rises, you slowly learn the truth of what is happening in this fort. The dynamics suggested in the early moments grow louder and more pronounced throughout the story. The weak are weaker, the cruel are crueler, and the strong are stronger.
The biggest issue with the series is the structure of the episodes. Masters of Horror started each episode with that beautiful and haunting opening credits. Fear Itself has a great opening credits sequence, too; however, each episode has a cold open, starting the story with opening exposition. The tension is cut immediately with the credits, forcing the momentum to restart. Furthermore, because this aired on network TV, the episodes had to be split up by commercial breaks. The entire series works better without the ads, but the ads literally change the structure of the anthology horror film series.
“The Sacrifice” is a great mix of different and unexpected horror genres. It’s a flashy, action-packed introduction to an anthology horror film series for a new audience.
A quick note: if you are watching Fear Itself on the Roku Channel, please note that Episode 1 “The Sacrifice” and Episode 4 “In Sickness and In Health” are mislabeled.
content warning: gore, surgical footage
Up Next: Fear Itself S1E02 “Spooked” from director Brad Anderson.