Fear Itself is the unofficial third season of Masters of Horror. The anthology horror series started on Showtime and aired for two seasons. They invited famous and emerging horror directors to create original hour-long horror films. The series found a new home and name on NBC for its third and final season. After this episode, they pulled the show for the summer Olympics. The series would never finish airing on TV. They released the final four episodes on the NBC website after the series’ cancellation.
In Skin & Bones, a family is relieved when their beloved father returns from a long hunting trip in the mountains. He is not well. He has frostbite, severe injuries, and lost significant weight because of starvation. The doctor says he’ll be fine with rest and food, but another worker on the ranch suggests the symptoms might result from a Wendigo attack.
Skin & Bones is strange even by the standards of the overall series. I mean, it is the third episode written by Drew McWeeney and Rebecca Swan. They’re responsible for the screenplays of Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life. Their contributions to the series are large ensemble stories of weird fiction.
No other episode in the entirety of Fear Itself and Masters of Horror is body horror. It’s also a family melodrama with horror elements. The horror comes in equal parts from Grady’s unexpected transformation and the family falling apart.
Most significant of all is a positive trend in the series’ direction. Gordon Tootoosis plays Eddie Bear, the worker who suggests the Wendigo theory. He’s an indigenous actor from Canada who plays an indigenous character. Tootoosis’ role is essential to the story. Yes, he is responsible for the exposition about the Wendigo, which is pretty typical for the role of indigenous people in horror; however, his role and significance to the story go far beyond his knowledge. Eddie Bear is a character with depth and genuine connections to the other characters on-screen. He also doesn’t just disappear when he reveals what he knows.
Compare this to the last time this series featured indigenous characters in a story. John Landis’ Deer Woman embraced harmful tropes and stereotypes. The episode cast indigenous actors as criminals or casino workers. The only significant role written for an indigenous actress was not cast with one. Just be aware that less than three years passed between the debut of these two episodes. Horror still has a long way to go with issues of representation, but it started trending in a more positive direction around this time.
Director Larry Fessenden’s career as a horror director, writer, editor, cinematographer, and actors spans many different media forms. He’s best known at this point for his breakout hit Wendigo and the phenomenal The Last Winter; that film is showcased in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fessenden also co-wrote the popular horror game Until Dawn and collaborated with Guillermo del Toro on the English-language Orphanage remake. As a producer, he focuses on helping young directors early in their careers. These films include The Innkeepers, Stake Land, The House of the Devil, and even Wendy and Lucy. Fessenden’s work as a writer and director mixes monster elements in the style of the Universal Monster Movies with powerful characters and stories of chosen families torn apart by unimaginable evil.
Skin & Bones is wild. Doug Jones plays Grady, shifting between bedridden scenes of pure exhaustion and unpredictable bursts of evil, flesh-hungry attacks on everyone around him. His character is starving but refuses all food he doesn’t catch himself. This is supported by subtle shifts in makeup that slowly transform Grady from a malnourished man to a living ghoul.
Grady puts family first in everything he does. The spirit of the Wendigo pushes him to act on his deepest secrets in pursuing human meat. A major part of the horror is watching the family at the ranch fall apart as Grady’s shifting moods and attacks define who he believes his real family is.
content warning: gore, violence against women, violence against children, domestic violence, gun violence
Up next: S1E10 “Something with Bite” from director Ernest Dickerson.