Fear Itself is the unofficial third season of Masters of Horror. Showtime was no longer willing to cover the full cost of production of the anthology horror series, so Lionsgate stepped in. Soon the series was rebranded as Fear Itself to air in a slightly different format on NBC. The concept remains the same. Iconic and emerging horror directors from around the world were invited to direct original short horror films. The content restrictions brought on by Network TV created a very different season.
One of the most iconic images to come out of the entirety of Fear Itself is featured in Stuart Gordon’s episode “Eater.” The photo used in the press releases, the news articles, the magazine features, and the web campaigns features Elisabeth Moss, fresh off her breakout role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, staring straight into the camera in utter shock. She is dressed as a police officer in front of a cell, a discolored hand reaching for her arm, lost in thought.
It should come as no surprise that Stuart Gordon creates some of the scariest moments in the entire Masters of Horror/Fear Itself franchise with the new restrictions of network TV. He is one of the most obvious choices to be included in the series and the second director featured in every season of the show (after John Landis). Love it or hate it, Stuart Gordon’s work in horror features huge swings of emotions and low concept universes of psychological horror. He is the master of the HP Lovecraft adaptation, crafting iconic horror films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon.
In Eater a cannibalistic serial killer who preyed on young female victims is brought into police custody. Bannerman, a rookie cop, is part of the night watch tasked with guarding his cell before he gets transferred to a more secure facility. One by one, the more experienced cops begin to change. First, they act like completely different people; then, they get killed one by one.
The biggest flaw in Eater is the limitation of the series format. Stuart Gordon does his best work when there’s room to breathe and reflect on what is happening. 45 minutes is not a lot of time for his particular style of horror. He hits the elements early on that allow him to dive right into his more successful tropes of madness and otherworldly horror, but the whole film would be stronger at a feature length. Essentially, we get the dry open with the serial killer’s backstory and capture as act one, about 10 minutes of exposition as act two, and the rest of the episode as act three. The story of a cannibal using black magic to manipulate his victims would thrive with a slower build at the front.
Elisabeth Moss is, unsurprisingly, excellent. She gets to do what she does best. Moss’ acting is all about her presence in the moment. She tells so much with a subtle shift in her focus or facial expression. There are two things about her career that do not surprise me at all. One, directors love to use a long closeup on her reaction to what’s happening around her. Two, she’s been wonderful in every horror/thriller story she’s ever been cast in.
As much as people joke about horror being a genre filled with bad acting, the best horror features great stylized acting. Actors like Robert Englund, Vincent Price, Angela Bettis, Jeffrey Combs, and Lin Shaye have spent much of their careers working in horror because they know how to create a realistic character for the universe they’re acting in. Horror is a funhouse mirror held up to society that lets us safely explore the things we are most afraid of. If actors gave “good,” realistic performances, very few people would watch them. The films would be too realistic to safely enjoy. When you cast and direct actors to act slightly inhuman as reality bends around them, you create a safer sense of distance to explore and even enjoy these worlds.
Eater is one of my favorite episodes in the entire Masters of Horror/Fear Itself series. It’s a story set in a cross between Silence of the Lambs and the opening sequence of Child’s Play that isn’t afraid to just live in that terrifying world between life and death.
Content Warning: misogyny, violence against women, gore, foul language, death by suicide
Up next: S1E06: “New Year’s Day” from director Darren Lynn Bousman.