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. The difference here is the introduction of commercials, which split the short films apart and became a make or break factor in the success of each episode.
A police detective gravely injures a suspect to save a kidnapped child. The suspect promises the officer he will never be able to forget what he’s done. It’s a pattern in his policework that costs him his job. 15 years later, he’s a private detective brought on to find out if a husband is cheating on his wife. This brings him straight into a haunted house where that suspect makes good on his promise.
Brand Anderson returns to the series with “Spooked.” At this point, he was still a newer horror director. He directed Session 9 and The Machinist before his Masters of Horror episode “Sounds Like.” Anderson’s next horror film Transsiberian would be released shortly after his Fear Itself episode. His horror/thriller work is driven by an exploration of sanity and perspective.
“Spooked” cements his secondary focus on order and structure in society. Even going back to The Machinist and Session 9, you can see how his work has always played with the idea of what happens to people who choose to operate outside of society’s expectations for them. It just became a clearer throughline with “Spooked,” a tonally similar film literally about police work.
The biggest problem with “Spooked” is the screenplay. It’s entirely too predictable. I don’t mean the haunting element. The opening scene sets up the inevitable plot in that revenge haunting style that was particularly big in the late 80s/early 90s. I mean the main plot of the episode. “Spooked” is a moving cliché of private detective thrillers with some extra blood and a ghost thrown in.
The reason to watch this episode is Eric Roberts’ performance. His disgraced detective turned corrupt private detective performance is delightful. If you like a good scene chewing turn, you’ll love what he’s doing here. This is Bette Davis post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? levels of overacting and pandering to the camera. You love to hate his character because he’s doing the absolute most with his performance whether it’s appropriate or not to the scene. The whole cast goes big, but Roberts presence consumes the film.
The production design is excellent on this episode. The buildings connected to the kidnapping suspect are just the right kind of disturbing. The initial den the child is being held in tells a heartbreaking and terrifying story in stacks of dirty dishes, filthy sheets, and peeling paint. There’s a real sense of dread built into the world that suggests a dark and dangerous story to come.
The abandoned house used for the private investigation is just a bit too staged to be trusted. There is a recurring motif of masked characters painted on the walls that are staring at the detective’s every move. Every window is damaged. Every wall has peeling plastic sheets. Every floor has knocked over stacks of paper. It’s out of place with the rest of the neighborhood, but so similar to that last official crime scene that it’s believable for the detective. Then the haunting starts and the truth crawls out of the rubble.
Brad Anderson’s films are only as good as the screenplay allows them to be. He has a consistent style and tone to his work. The performances in his films do tend to be larger than life, but the weird fiction elements in his best films often balance out the big characters. There just isn’t enough substance in “Spooked” to balance out his cinematic vision.
content warning: gore, sexual content (audio recording), child abuse
Up next: S1E03 “Family Man” from director Ronny Yu.