Ah, summertime television.
It’s a mixed bag for sure, as the networks are going to greater lengths to try and capture viewers during what used to be a rerun-filled dead zone. Now, ongoing series debut in summer, and, as with NBC’s Fear Itself, networks are trying out new concepts.
The idea behind Fear Itself is a laudable one, if not something that’s been seen before (and before that) – the suspense/horror anthology series showcasing various directors and actors. If it sounds familiar, you’re right – it’s essentially Showtime’s Masters of Horror diluted for network television – up to and including the fact that NBC is calling each episode a “short film.”
As for the show itself, common sense would seem to dictate that, if you’re moving from pay cable (where some of your horror and suspense can be carried by more explicit content) to network, you’d amp up the psychological chills and scares – really press the disturbing button rather than gore and lost limbs. There is an attempt at that in the first episode, to be true, although the series will run with a “Viewer Discretion Advised” tag and runs from 10-11 pm, allowing for it to go as far as network tv will allow, content-wise.
In tonight’s (Thursday, June 5th) debut episode, “Sacrifice,” the series marks its territory with a screenplay written by Mick (Riding the Bullet) Garris (based on “The Lost Herd” by Del Howison) and directed by Breck Eisner. The episode brings out a case of familiar tropes – three desperate criminals on the run, an old fort that seems to have stood still in time, three mysterious sisters and a dark secret - and begins arranging them in a fairly compelling way – with, of course, the underlying feeling of something very dark and foreboding around the corner.
The dark thing, of course, is a vampire, held within the walls of the fort since the settlers arrived there (in about the early-mid 1800s one would guess). Generation after generation, they have fed the vampire to keep him there - as their own responsibility – by trapping locals who have the misfortune of coming too close to the out-of-the way fort.
The build up to the reveal is handled well by Eisner, with Jeffery Pierce and Rachel Miner giving solid performances as the lead criminal and the elder sister, respectively. As things grow, there are many solid scares, with the story’s possibilities opening wider and wider as you’re not sure just what’s going on in the fort. But then… “Sacrifice” starts to suffer from the “good idea/bad execution” phenomenon. Up until a point, the backstory works and works well, but as the show clock starts ticking down, and its hour to tell a story crosses over to the downhill side, everything starts to suffer. Elements that were open for development go down the trite road, and the ending feels as if it was put in quick, with one eye on the clock.
Not to spoil the ending, but come on – these people were from Romania, they knew what vampires were, had one trapped in essentially a small area for over a hundred years, and they couldn’t kill it? Really? After generations, no one tried to kill it the way that Pierce and Miner do, even though we’re shown that the vampire is familiar with that particular place, and the trap that they use is probably the oldest trap known to mankind, so much so that cartoon animals use it with regularity? Really?
As a result, what starts promising ends middling with a final twist at the end that well, you knew was coming, but yet, manages to insult the audience again, leaving you asking, “Wait - he didn’t know?” while breaking the story’s own internal logic.
It’s a frustrating start to what originally looked like a quality horror/suspense anthology series. Don’t misunderstand – this will probably be a nice little performer for NBC, and might even get picked up for a season, but if you’re a genre fan, looking for smart suspense and horror with a twist, this just isn’t quite there yet. We won’t write off the series fully just yet, but please, please, please…network executives, yes, writing and producing smarter horror and suspense is harder than putting ingredients together that we’ve all seen before. It is. But it’s worth it. “Sacrifice” has minutes of really good and a few moments of greatness in it. Please don’t let this opportunity slide away.