That the fifth episode of Fear Itself pushes the envelope of network “standards and practices” should be no surprise once it’s revealed that none other than Re-Animator auteur Stuart Gordon is in the director’s chair. Gordon has spent his career—from his days as the co-founder of Chicago’s innovative Organic Theater Company to his current work as director of such genre classics as From Beyond, The Pit and the Pendulum and Dolls—playing with the audience’s comfort zone. Whether it’s about crossing the line with shocking violence and gore or pushing the boundaries of human behavior and narrative expectation, the director has never failed to provoke.
Eater is no different. Elisabeth Moss from AMC’s Mad Men plays Bannerman, a rookie cop assigned with some stereotypically male colleagues to watch over a ginormous serial killer (Stephen R. Hart) cooling his heels in one of their precinct’s cells. This guy with a J-horror hairdo is called an “eater” since his modus operandi involves cannibalism. With a cannibal killer and a female rookie cop protagonist, the episode starts off very much like a certain Jodie Foster flick, but before you can say “Hannibal Lector,” the writers have Stephen Lee doing his best Lector impression in the interest of full disclosure. While Silence of the Lambs provides the opening setup, it’s the workhouse plot of The Thing that kicks in during the second half. It seems that the eater practices some Louisiana voodoo which allows him to consume more than just a victim’s flesh when he dines so he can shape-shift into their physical forms as well. Bannerman soon has a hard time telling which of her fellow police officers is really the “eater” in disguise.
If it all sounds like cliché upon cliché, well that’s what it is. But if you are a fan of the horror genre you know that this is par for the course and that it has nothing to do with the actual experience of watching the film. Orson Welles once said that you could write all of the ideas for movies on the head of a pin. He might have also said that you could write all of the ideas for horror movies on half the head of a pin. The genre is so small that it’s nearly impossible for one vampire to not step on the tail of a werewolf. As Welles was trying to point out, the “what” is not as vital as the “how,” and five episodes into Fear Itself we not only get an authentic horror story but one that is properly executed.
Working from a script by Richard Chizmar and Jonathan Schaech, Gordon stages hangings, hearts torn out of chests, hands being chewed on, fingers cooked up in frying pans like breakfast sausage, an ear that’s swallowed up and rat poison being ingested. This may seem less like the work of a talented director than a busy FX team, but unlike Lucio Fulci, whose films often seem to be objective recordings of random fx gore, Gordon has a knack for building tension and knowing just when to drop the hammer of violence for maximum impact.
Chizmar and Schaech provide Gordon with the right kind of script to offer this kind of experience. The quality of writing has nothing to do with which clichés are collected together but in how they are arranged to create tension. Gordon executes this expertly in the first half of the episode, carefully setting up the situation, the specific people involved, and the slow dread that comes over Bannerman as she realizes that something is very, very wrong. His use of a roving, floating Steadicam is both economical for the tight shooting schedule and as a device to present the audience with the maze-like space. Gordon is nothing if not practical. If it was good enough for Stanley Kubrick, it’s good enough for him.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.