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Fear Itself: Spooked (2008)

Fear Itself: Spooked reviewReviewed by Morgan Elektra

Starring Eric Roberts, Cynthia Watros, Jack Noseworthy, Larry Gilliard Jr.

Directed by Brad Anderson


I’m really a very optimistic person. I’m the one who watches every movie and reads every book right to the very end no matter how bad it is because I have that sliver of hope that something will turn around. That last page or last frame may well redeem everything that’s come before.

So despite the hits and misses of the two seasons of Masters of Horror, or the fact that it had moved to NBC, or the ridiculous new intro and less than stellar first episode, I decided to give Masters of Horror… err, I mean Fear Itself, another shot. Hi, punishment? This is glutton…

This week’s Fear Itself episode, “Spooked”, stars the frumpier of the Roberts children (that being Eric, for those of you that don’t know) as a Bad Cop named Harry. Harry is a Bad Cop because he beats up suspects… and witnesses, too. He burns them with cigars. And cuts them with knives. In fact, the episode opens with Harry working over a suspect named Rory (Noseworthy, who does creepy just by breathing) in order to get information on the location of a kidnapped boy. Unfortunately for Harry, he takes the interrogation a little too far and Rory ends up dying – but not before swearing that he will never allow Harry to forget what he’s done.

Fifteen years later Harry has lost his badge, changed his name, become a drunk, and is now a PI. He and his hip sidekick James (Gilliard) spy on cheating spouses for a chunk of cash, then blackmail their clients for more cash. Nice bunch of guys. When a weepy woman named Meredith (Watros) comes and asks Harry to get evidence that her husband is tomcatting around town, James and Harry set up shop near her house – James in a surveillance van down the street, Harry in the abandoned house across the street that Meredith thoughtfully suggested to him. Right away Harry starts hearing and seeing things that James cannot and starts to get freaked out.

Fear Itself: Spooked reviewHaunted house stories are staples of the horror genre. They’re some of the first horror stories most people come into contact with as children around campfires or at slumber parties. We all know the clichés. So does “Spooked”. Abandoned house where “something terrible” happened? Check. Broken doll with creepy open eye? Check. Old radio that turns itself on? Check. Whispered voices and electronic interference? Double check.

And just in case you weren’t sure this house was haunted, some thoughtful vandal children have written non-cryptic messages on the walls in spray paint – things like DEAD PEOPLE, WE WILL KILL YOU, MURDER and BODIES IN THE BASEMENT. And in case you’re STILL not sure, some random kid hiding in the basement mentions he’s there on a bet to spend the whole night because of “what happened to those kids”. Got it now? Good, because the ghosties have a plan for Harry the former Bad Cop, in the form of haunting him with all his bad deeds.

So we’re supposed to feel bad for Harry as he’s tormented by his Past (that needs to be capitalized, just like Bad Cap … it’s very important) because he’s got a Big Secret (another important capitalization) that made him lose his sense of wrong and right. Boo hoo. Poor Harry.

This episode was penned by Matt Venne, who wrote the Masters of Horror episode “Pelts” (which I enjoyed a lot) and White Noise 2: The Light, and directed by Machinist, Session 9, and Masters of Horror episode “Sounds Like” director Brad Anderson. Given the credentials there, I thought this episode would at least be decent – there’s that optimism again – but it was just a mess.

Fear Itself: Spooked reviewHarry is completely unsympathetic. Despite his Big Secret, his ultimate redemption (if you can call it that) is lackluster. And none of the other characters, despite the fact that I’ve seen each of the actors excel in other roles, is worth a damn. Meredith isn’t as mysterious as she should be, she’s just kind of sad looking, and James’ only purpose seems to be not doing what he’s supposed to so that Harry can convince himself for a minute that what he saw might really have happened.

Even if the characters are thin, this might still have been salvageable. But every “twist” of the story is telegraphed WAY in advance. Rory’s impassioned dying declaration – gee, that won’t factor into a HAUNTING, will it? Worse is that Harry’s utter abhorrence of guns is practically beaten into the viewer’s skull. The DA even mentions it when grilling Harry about his Internal Affairs jacket for excessive violence; “But you’ve never pulled your gun…” Well, I guess burning a female suspect’s thighs repeatedly and slitting Rory’s throat aren’t so bad! It’s not like he SHOT them. And if you can’t figure out Meredith’s involvement within 10 minutes of her character’s appearance on screen … well, you’ve probably changed the channel. And lucky you.

Ugh. This is the trouble with optimism; you get disappointed. There was nothing scary, special or even entertaining about this episode. The story is painfully cliché and shallow. There’s nary a moment of real suspense or fright in the whole show. I think the best I can say about it is that the acting wasn’t overly terrible, and it didn’t look bad. But there was nothing about the look that was striking either. It could have been any show by any director. And while the acting wasn’t bad, there wasn’t even a moment that shined through for any of the actors. I don’t know who’s to blame: NBC, Brad Anderson, Matt Venne … maybe some combination of the three? Maybe horror fans en masse have somehow offended an ancient Greek god and this is our punishment? If so, someone slaughter a goat already.

It’s official. All you pessimists out there who said this move to a new channel was going to smother an already weak show? You were right. My optimism is dead. Thanks NBC.

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1 out of 5

Discuss Fear Itself: Spooked in the Dread Central forums!

Morgan Elektra

16 Comments

  1. if you ask me moh was better than this .
    i hate to say this, but this show on nbc fear itself is more lamer than other shows, and this is putting it mildly.
    its as cold as a dead man, chilling as ice, deader than a doornail, and quite lost .

    Weve lost control: kill everyone (28 weeks later)

  2. Even though MOH was a bit of a wash, its failures fell squarely on the shoulders of the filmmakers. They had complete creative control, which made the handful of good episodes damn great. Sounds Like was a one-trick pony, but at least it felt like Brad Anderson. They might as well hired one director for all of this show.

    Although I hear next week’s episode is well worth it. Dan Knauf is a genius and more adept at TV so hopefully he’ll fare better.

    • Sounds Like, to me, felt like someone had seen The Machinist, loved it and decided to make something like it. It felt like a rip-off of The Machinist, didn’t feel like Brad Anderson to me.

      • Hmm, I differ on this one. Whereas “Sounds Like” worked for me a horrific character study, “The Machinist” seemed to be enslaved to plot contrivances and a preordained ending.

        To each their own.

    • While I wouldn’t call Knauf a genius (Wolf Lake, anyone?) he’s certainly a more interesting writer than Matt Venne. I’m curious to see how much of his script survived after the scab Canadian writers were called in.

  3. Also:

    “I’m official. All you pessimists out there who said this move to a new channel was going to smother an already weak show? You were right. My optimism is dead. Thanks NBC.”

    Really? The problem with this was that there’s wasn’t enough gore? How different would this have been on Showtime? Give me a fucking break, you’re just looking for something else to whine about.

    • Actually, the comment has nothing to do with having more or less gore. That wasn’t a factor at all, which is why I didn’t mention it in the review. In fact, most of my favorite MOH eps were ones like Fair Haired Child and The Black Cat, which didn’t feature all that much gore.

      The problem is with the story, which felt weaker, shallower and much more cliche than anything Masters of Horror had to offer. When it was on Showtime, the premises were much more interesting and it seemed like the writers and directors took more risks, even if the results weren’t good.

      • And this is attributable to the network it’s on? MOH was FULL of crap (especially the second season). I don’t see why it’s NBC’s fault. I personally think that the script for Brad Anderson’s FI episode was a lot stronger than the script he directed for the second season of MoH.

        And, an upside for me of the new series is that so far they LOOK like movies, whereas so much of MoH looked like shallow, uninteresting made-for-TV movies.

        • The nature of the subject matter presented is absolutely attributable to the network it’s on. On Showtime, the writers were able to explore topics that wouldn’t fly on regular cable.

          Quality notwithstanding, the subject matter of episodes like Jenifer, Haeckel’s Tale, Dance of the Dead, was much more interesting than the cliched subject matter that Fear Itself has offered up.

          • Morgan’s absolutely right, of course. On even the most basic storytelling level, working for one of the major networks offers far less latitude than working for a cable channel, particularly a premium one. While it’s certainly a matter of personal taste, I found Anderson’s MOH ep, “Sounds Like,” to be much more layered, subtle and original than the snoringly formulaic “bad cop turned P.I. literally haunted by his past” balderdash that we saw last night. Roberts’ cliched P.I. (replete with wacky black sidekick) is a one-note pastiche that has nothing on Chris Bauer’s finely nuanced quality control operator (not to mention that Bauer’s a much better actor than Roberts, whose histrionics were wincingly laughable). This was dull, hackneyed storytelling, with every scene telegraphed far in advance that never rose above the most shallow trappings. “Sounds Like” had the distinctive feel of a Brad Anderson project, and it ended at a place of real emotional catharsis. This felt like it could have been directed by any work-for-hire director in search of a quick paycheck.

            I’ll also wholeheartedly disagree with your assertion that FI looks better than MOH. FI looks like nothing more than an average procedural — it’s all “establishing shot – interior – closeup,” wash, rinse repeat. The lighting is soft and safe, lending virtually no atmosphere at all, and the editing is as by the book as it gets. MOH often experimented with setups, lighting and editing — even the worst of MOH looked light years more cinematic than anything on FI. Indeed, there’s no difference between the look of FI and any ep of BONES or HOUSE. While you’re entitled to your opinion, I find it utterly baseless and completely without merit. For me, there’s no comparison. Aesthetically, FI is stale and typical while MOH, in spite of some spotty scripts, could always be counted on to look terrific. It never “looked” safe.

            You can absolutely thank NBC for that, as they notoriously micromanage every aspect of every show they air, doling out enough notes to choke a horse and stop anything genuinely risk-taking or provocative (and I’m not talking about gore at all, but rather content) in its tracks. Whereas Showtime had a hands-off approach that allowed the MOH creators to have a near free reign, NBC is fully in charge of this incarnation.

            And it shows in every paint-by-numbers scene.

            So far, this is on par with the worst of any horror anthology I’ve ever seen, and I’ve suffered through dreck like NIGHT VISIONS and the Forest Whitaker-hosted TWILIGHT ZONE. Honestly, if this is the best they have to offer, FEAR ITSELF will be canceled (mercifully) in no time at all.

            MOH is looking better and better in hindsight. Without the veil of expectation, many MOH eps have deepened upon subsequent viewing. Thus far, FEAR ITSELF hasn’t offered up one second worth revisiting.

          • I just have to say… This –

            “Morgan’s absolutely right, of course.”

            just made my day. ;)

          • Honestly? I think Morgan nailed it. So far Fear Itself has felt kind of safe and stale. It’s almost as if it’s trying so hard to be scary that it’s taking itself too seriously. Neither episode has resulted in much fun. Hell, all I want is a new version of Tales from the Darkside! Is that formula so hard to replicate? Especially by talented filmmakers? Color me disappointed.

  4. Wow, pretty harsh review. I thought this was much better than last week’s episodes and barring some of the silliness (the guy’s line to Roberts as he’s being taken away and the on the nose graffiti in the house) it was mostly solid. Yeah, some of the dialogue was weak and/or to on the nose but I think for the most part, the only real problem was that it should have been a little longer as some of the events towards the end just happen too quickly.

    And yeah…Eric Roberts crying WAS pretty amusing…

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