The more Fear Itself I watch, the more convinced I become that the key to being able to do a good television horror anthology is to get a lot of directors who can work well with low budgets, talented TV actors, and of course, writers who can actually write a story under 45 minutes in length without being too rushed or incoherent. While it may seem simple when I say it that way, apparently finding this right combination is insanely difficult. Fortunately, Eater has one of the low-budget gore kings, Stuart Gordon, at the helm. If anyone can do creepy for no money, it’s him.
Bannerman (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) is a rookie cop. Worse than that, she’s also a girl, which means she gets twice the ribbing and half the respect that a male cop would get. When you add in the fact that she’s petite, blonde, and a bit of a horror nut, well, it’s no wonder her fellow cops Steinwitz (Stephen Lee of Dark Angel and about a billion guest shots on various shows) and Mattingly (The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber) do nothing but mess with her all the time. Even though the Sergeant (Russell Hornsby) respects her and sticks up for her, Bannerman’s life isn’t easy.
When Cajun serial killer Duane “The Eater” Mellor (the incredibly creepy Stephen R. Hart) shows up at the station for a night’s stay in the middle of a snowstorm while in transit to FBI custody, things go from bad to worse. While the fiend is safely locked away in his cage, nobody really wants him there. After all, not only is he a murdering giant, he’s also a cannibal who turns his victims into meals, clothing, bowls, utensils, and even lampshades. He’s like Martha Stewart with a taste for human flesh. So, basically, he’s exactly like Martha Stewart.
In spite of the clichés handed to him by writers Richard Chizmar and Johnathon Schaech, (the snowy night, phones and power going out, the empty police station, etc.), Stuart Gordon knows how to craft a creepy piece of entertainment. Unlike the first episode, where the weak script is compounded with flaccid directing and weak staging, Gordon permeates his setting with suspense to spare and even sneaks some particularly good gross-out scenes past the network censors, including a memorable eyeball on pizza scene that nearly made me lose my dinner.
The writing isn’t actually that bad, either, if you can stomach the overuse of both horror genre staples and cop show standards simultaneously. It’s witty enough and there’s a lot of Gordon’s trademark black humor throughout, especially in the hands of Steinwitz as he torments Bannerman throughout the episode. It’s certainly a step up from the political polemic Masters of Horror episode The Washingtonians, which is the best known of Chizmar and Schaech’s writing work together (unless you’re a huge fan of Road House 2, in which case you should drive your car off the nearest high bridge).
The standout of this episode is easily Stephen Hart. He’s legitimately one of the creepiest people I’ve ever seen on my television, and I watch a lot of reality shows. That should tell you something right there. How it took him this long to get his big break as a horror actor—playing a featured zombie in Resident Evil: Apocalypse and The Elder in Silent Hill doesn’t really count—is beyond me. This guy could be the next Michael Berryman. He’s not only menacing-looking; he can also act and uses his size to maximum intimidation levels thanks to a background in sideshow and strongman performances.
Eater isn’t the best Fear Itself episode, or even second best, but it’s a close third best in a series that’s had more ups and downs than a manic depressive on a rollercoaster. This is definitely one of the stand-out episodes, and it’s a credit to Stuart Gordon’s ability to direct horror combined with some really good casting for all major characters. Nice to see this show can follow up a low point with a high point. Two good episodes in a row would be great, but next week is Darren Lynn Bousman’s New Year’s Day, so I kind of doubt it.
Ron Hogan, our US correspondent, is glad his parents spent so much money on braces and orthodontic work after seeing the horror that is The Eater’s maw. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics.