Fear Itself: “Family Man”

From 2005-2007, Showtime aired 26 episodes of the anthology Masters of Horror, created by SLEEPWALKERS director Mick Garris. Well known directors including Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Takashi Miike were given an hour running time and a TV crew and budget, but few other limitations, to make little mini horror movies. The results were mixed, but there were some good ones (my favorites were by Lucky McKee, Don Coscarelli and John Carpenter) and it was an opportunity to get new material from great directors who for the most part weren’t getting as many opportunities as they should’ve in those days.

When Showtime opted not to renew Masters of Horror for a third season, Garris took basically the same premise to NBC, under the new title Fear Itself. This was kinda different not only because it had a new theme song by Serj Tankian of System of a Down, but because it had commercials and was censored for network TV. So if you haven’t heard of it, that’s why. They made 13 episodes, but NBC only aired five. Along with official Masters of Horror Landis and Gordon were more directors from a younger generation including Breck Eisner (THE CRAZIES), Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST), and Mary Harron (AMERICAN PSYCHO), plus – you guessed it – the master of such horrors as THE TRAIL, THE OCCUPANT, BLESS THIS HOUSE, BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY VS. JASON, Ronny Yu. That’s right – his followup to FEARLESS was the opposite, Fear Itself.

Yu’s “Family Man” was the third episode, so it actually aired, on June 19, 2008, after Last Comic Standing. It was written by Daniel Knauf, the creator of HBO’s Carnivàle.

It stars (at first) Colin Ferguson (THE OPPOSITE OF SEX) as Hallmark Channel worthy suburban dad, husband, and V.P. in the mortgage trust department at First World Savings Bank Dennis Mahoney. He’s introduced in church singing “Amazing Grace” with the congregation next to his wife Kathy (Josie Davis, Charles in Charge) and kids Courtney (Nicole Leduc, later in JENNIFER’S BODY) and Sean (Gig Morton, AIR BUDDIES). We know he’s a valued member of the church because the reverend (Terence Kelly, STAR 80) is excited about him “making pancakes again this year at the church breakfast.” Courtney gives away the “old family secret” that they put ice cream in the batter.

Immediately after church he has to go to the office, but he promises to play catch with Sean if it’s still light out when he gets home. It’s all too good to be true and I was convinced that he was not going to the office, he has a secret life as a serial killer. But I was wrong. Instead the other shoe that drops is he’s talking to Kathy on his cell phone while driving to work and gets nailed by a truck in the middle of the intersection.

It’s an effective shock followed by the lovingly gruesome touch that he dropped the phone in the street, his arm is dangling out the window, and his blood is pouring on the phone like rain, while Kathy tries to talk to him (and the kids watch cartoons in the background).

When he wakes up in the hospital he sees his family in the waiting room through a window. He tries to get their attention, and Courtney comes over and draws a cross on the window with a pink paint marker. But she clearly doesn’t see him.

“She can’t hear you, bro,” says a guy (Clifton Collins Jr., FORTRESS, ONE TOUGH BASTARD, CAPOTE). “Can’t see you either. You’re dead. We both are.”

He’s right, of course. And he shows him. He brings him through the hospital – everyone stands frozen like bullet time – to the bed where doctors and cops surround his own dead body. “Shot my ass good. Look at all that blood,” he says with a smile. On the other side of the curtain, of course, is Dennis’s body, also dead. He looks at it and can’t believe it. Then there’s a white flash, and a blurry POV shot of a doctor looking down at him. “I see we’re awake,” she says as she comes into focus. He asks where his family is and a cop steps in and tells him, “You don’t have a family, unless you count the ones you slaughtered.”

I think you can guess where this is going. Although this is still Dennis, he looks like the other guy. So the good news is he’s alive, the bad news is he’s charged with 26 counts of capital murder, 19 counts of kidnapping, 19 counts of unlawful restraint, and false imprisonment because he’s in the body of the recently apprehended “Family Man” serial killer Richard Brautigan. Somehow their souls switched place.

The other good news is that Clifton Collins Jr. is the protagonist of the episode. I like that guy. And he gets to act kind of dorky now instead of a tough guy like in his first scene.

Dennis tries to convince his court appointed attorney (Stephen Lobo, later on the Snowpiercer TV show) that he’s Dennis, but that seems a little far fetched. “Uh, all things considered I would say spiritual transmigration is a stunningly crappy defense,” the lawyer says.

He also tells him that the police were under pressure to solve this case and jumped the gun, most of their evidence is circumstantial, and “if we can alibi you for even one of the abductions I’m trying to tell you we can beat this thing.” But of course, his only alibi is that he was in a different body, living a different life! Later he’ll be roughly interrogated and offered a life sentence instead of death if he tells them where the bodies are, but of course he can’t take that deal because he has no idea.

The sheriff (Michael St. John Smith, BLADE: TRINITY) talks shit to him and hits him with a club, revealing that the rumors are true – he can’t feel pain. (Nothing too much comes of that.) The next day he gets a visitor: himself. Well, his old body. “You know who I am, Dennis. We met in the emergency room. Remember, amigo?”

Brautigan tells him that it’s God’s will the way things turned out and reveals that he’s living as him, with his “beautiful family,” doing his job and everything. (The job part seems to really offend Dennis.) Brautigan offers to teach him how to survive on the inside if he’ll teach him how to be him on the outside. He says it’s his “chance at redemption” and promises to “take care of our family.” But in sort of a threatening way, I do believe.

So it’s kind of a FACE/OFF deal. Although it has been revealed that Brautigan is not only a mass murderer but also videotaped himself raping entire families (!?), it’s kind of comical when he’s woken up on Sunday morning and learns that he has to go to church. He embarrasses the Mahoneys by singing “Amazing Grace” loudly and badly (but with enthusiasm) and by not realizing that he’s expected to make the pancakes for the breakfast, not just eat them. (Either he got out of the hospital fast or they really planned that fuckin pancake breakfast way in advance.) His most upsetting behavior is yelling at the kids’ friend Spencer and calling him a punk for “takin off with my kids.”

“I told you, I just didn’t recognize the kid,” he tells Kathy.

“You’ve know him since he was two!”

“I know.”

It’s weird that she doesn’t worry about a brain injury from the car accident. But that probly wouldn’t explain his creepy rant about people trying to murder the kids. “The only time he’s not thinking about it is when he’s already got ‘em, ‘cause then he’s thinking about all the horrible things he’s gonna do to them.”

The real Dennis manages to call home, but they think he’s a weirdo, or “a loon” as fake Dennis says, before having the phone number changed. Brautigan visits him at the prison again, and makes a good point that it’s not like he can turn himself in anyway. Dennis tries to convince him to take the money and run, to get away from his family, but he says, “They need me. They’re my responsibility. I’m not gonna abandon them the way my father abandoned me.” I think he’s sincere! When he starts complaining about how hard the job is and how nothing is ever good enough for some fuckin douche named Gerald, Dennis relates and starts giving him tips on how to do the job. And Brautigan promises to bring video of his daughter dressed up as a bumblebee in the school play. So it’s like FACE/OFF if Castor Troy and Sean Archer started to get along at one point. (But he never does give any tips about surviving prison.)

Obviously this psycho can’t just turn himself into a nice guy at the drop of a dime, so without even realizing it he starts doing shit like insulting Sean’s baseball playing and starting a fight with a guy over a parking space (at which point he gets punched in the nose and learns what it’s like to feel pain).

Eventually our hero has to take action. Dennis tells the sheriff he’s going to tell them where the bodies are, but gets them to drive out near his house, steals a shotgun, and knocks them out. Then he apologizes. This shot kinda reminds me of FARGO and A SIMPLE PLAN:

He finds Brautigan alone in the kitchen hand washing dishes, so they have a duel, which I guess would be the most Ronny Yu (circa FREDDY VS. JASON) scene. (Fight choreographer: Dan Rizzuto – stunt double for Henry Rollins in WRONG TURN 2: DEAD END.) They fight with a large knife, a pencil, a frying pan (the swings look and sound dangerous).

He grabs Brautigan by the face and slams his head through a glass cabinet. When he body slams him into the coffee table there’s some sort of frame-doubling effect (like THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and WARRIORS OF VIRTUE!). He manages to choke Brautigan to death, but when he turns around the sheriff is standing there, shooting at him.

Now we get another blurry POV shot as he comes to consciousness looking up at an EMT (Patricia Darbasie, DECOYS 2: ALIEN SEDUCTION). And she calls him Mr. Mahoney. Holy shit – they died at the same time again, and switched bodies again! Everything’s back to normal!

Well, not entirely. The twist is that he goes to check on Kathy and the kids. They’ve been tied up and slashed. Courtney is barely alive to tell the sheriff that her daddy did it.

This is a pretty decent Twilight Zone type story, with solid performances by the two leads, and those mean opening and closings are pretty effective. But it’s not something I ever could’ve guessed was made by Ronny Yu. I think he did that fight scene better than many TV directors would’ve, but otherwise there’s not much style on display. Of course the cinematographer, editor, production designer, etc. are all the show’s regular crew, not people he’s worked with before. About the most interesting visual choice is how Dennis’s little flashes of memory have much more saturated colors than when he’s experiencing them. Unfortunately that only emphasizes how dull and lifeless the rest looks.

There are some annoying touches, like the haunting replay of little Courtney singing “Amazing Grace,” and, worse, her singing “I’m a little Baby Bumblebee,” which, god damn it, is stuck in my head again just from typing it. It is kind of cool that it’s in a nightmare where she starts to sing about smashing bees and then she’s smearing blood all over her arms and Brautigan (with camcorder) turns to Dennis excitedly telling him how cute she is.

The Fear Itself DVD collection includes a 5 minute making-of featurette for the episode, which is kind of cool. We get to see Yu directing, learn that he seems to have a fun time and joke around with the actors, and that he wears white gloves on the set. He compares the episode to a Hitchcock movie. “It doesn’t need the gore. It doesn’t need the blood. It’s the atmosphere, the character, the trouble he’s in.” Oh – that’s too bad, because I liked that part with the bloody phone. That was one of the best parts.

When they interview Collins, he says, “One of the big things about this piece was to have the opportunity to work with a film director like Ronny Yu. He’s worked with Chow Yun Fat, Samuel Jackson… he’s not your generic director shooting your master and your overs, and, you know, your outs. He’s not like that. He’s – he’s film.”

You see that? He’s referencing all the way back to THE POSTMAN STRIKES BACK. Good for him. Ferguson also praises Yu for knowing every shot he needs and not shooting a bunch of extra shit for safety.

It had been a couple years since FEARLESS, so I’m glad Yu found some work. But it seems even more like a for-hire gig than all his other English language stuff, not a true Ronny Yu joint. And it will be a while before we see one. The movie he’s been trying to make, an adaptation of an anime, has been taking a while. We’ll see what happens with that.

Tomorrow: a tangent to take a look at the anime Yu bought the rights to adapt into live action.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2023 at 7:08 am and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Fear Itself: “Family Man””

  1. I never saw an episode of FEAR ITSELF, but I wonder how much tamer than MASTERS OF HORROR it really was. I guess no sex and nudity, but it came out during a time when networks were amping up the violence already. That was still a few years before HANNIBAL, but CRIMINAL MINDS and CSI were already on the air and even ALIAS had an episode that showed a mans skin melting off when the bad guys tested a SciFi weapon on him a few years before that.

  2. Franchise Fred

    May 2nd, 2023 at 11:36 pm

    I remember the one with Brandon Routh which must’ve been the first one.

  3. These were pretty damn violent, saw a few on tv and later had rented them. Hard to remember them all. You don’t get as much swearing and no nudity, but overall a I recall they didn’t feel neutered. There was a cannibalism episode where I kept thinking here’s where we cut because no way are they going to oh shit she just ate a piece of that guy.

    There’s a few really good episodes, Stuart Gordon shows he’s the most consistent director of all of them by delivering a third really good one. AND it has what I think is the best episode out of all three seasons, which I didn’t have a huge hope for because it’s Larry Fessenden. Not that I have anything against him, it’s just his stuff has never done much for me. But he delivers a fast paced, exciting episode with Doug Jones delivering an excellent performance. It was weird seeing him doing some of his hand stylings on regular network tv after seeing that stuff in big weird movies, but there it was…and this time he got to be the lead. Those two are worth hunting down in my opinion, if you like the series at all.

  4. The Fessenden episode was written by Drew McWeeny and I seem to remember that before it aired, he was absolutely not pleased at all with the filmed result. He did praise Jones’ performance in it though.

  5. I think the writing was the least important thing about that one…it’s really the staging, pace and actors. The story is fairly boilerplate, don’t know if that was McWeeney or because of rewrites or whatever.

    I will say that depending on who’s idea it was to have one of the most baffilingly dumb decisions I’ve seen in a script, which was in Cigarette Burns. Showing the angel early not only tells you right away the film is real (we figure it will be) but also basically tells you what’s in it. What a ridiculous choice. How interesting would it have been to be wondering for an hour what’s in there, and then it’s an angel? So maybe Carpenter added that, don’t know.

    Oh and look, they’re all on Youtube for free.

  6. I kept forgetting to mention that (not that it’s important anyway) but I was surprised that this show had a theme song by Serj Tankian. Sadly it was just a case of I guess “The Network had a contract with the major label so they put some song in the credits for cross promotion reasons”, instead of him writing an actual theme. Although the full lyrics of LIE LIE LIE are appropriately macabre for such a show. (It’s about a couple who have a stormy affair, only to realize later that they are actually brother and sister. Ashamed of the relevation, they decide to jump off a cliff together, but of course the man doesn’t jump and just watches her die.)

  7. From his podcast, my understanding is that Garris had nothing to do with Fear Itself.

  8. He may have walked away, been pushed out, or been less hands on, but he is the creator and wrote two episodes. He has talked about how they convinced him it could be the same as Masters of Horror but on network TV, but he doesn’t think it worked out.

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