Constructed entirely from existing films, Fear Itself is a personal journey through fear and cinema that asks whether horror movies know us better than we know ourselves.
Amy E. Watson
I’m reminded of an episode of The Simpsons – when, at the end of a “clips show” – showing great moments from past seasons – a song during the closing credits actually had a lyric which said, “Sorry for the clips show!”
Many of you may remember that 1984 gem of a horror essay – Terror in the Aisles, starring Nancy Allen and Donald Pleasance. It’s a pretty basic documentary discussing terror and fear in cinema and is just a great big reason to watch some fun clips. The difference is – Terror in the Aisles doesn’t take itself seriously, where the new documentary/horror essay Fear Itself feels a bit pretentious. That’s a tough pill to swallow, since it’s not that good.
Look, as a “greatest hits” compilation of horror film clips from many different countries and many different eras, it’s a good time. You’ll be making mental notes of “that’s one I want to see” or “please brain, let me remember the name of that one”. But as a pseudo-study, it falls flat.
The film is narrated by Amy E. Watson. The surround story/narration is quite flimsy. The character recounts her feelings of fear and uncertainty following a tragic accident involving her sister. She discusses various types of fears which come to the surface in a tragedy and scenes from horror films are played – meant to mirror what the narrator is discussing.
You’ll see clips from recognizable films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, The Exorcist, Frankenstein and Poltergeist and from lesser known films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and The Man Who Haunted Himself.
Now, speaking of Poltergeist, there’s a little section in Fear Itself, which discusses the so-called “Poltergeist Curse”. As Horror Freaks, we’ve all heard of it and we know that several people throughout the history of the film trilogy have died near or around the film productions.
It frankly took me by surprise as Fear Itself starts off the segment with the breakfast table scene from the original film, discussing that in the first film, there were three children – Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. They then move onto footage of Poltergiest II: The Other Side, and show a scene with the family – pointing out that there are now only 2 children (Robbie and Carol Anne). Finally, they show footage from Poltergeist III and a scene of Carol Anne on her own, fighting the entities in that Chicago high-rise.
Here’s the history. Yes, Dominique Dunn who played oldest sibling Dana – was murdered by her abusive boyfriend. She was killed later in the year that the film was actually released.
We also know that little Heather O’Rourke of “They’re here” fame, died prematurely at age 12 – not long after Poltergeist III wrapped.
Fear Itself basically says that all three of the children (the real actors) died – one following each installment of the trilogy. But as far as I know, Oliver Robbins (Carol Anne’s older brother Robbie in the first two films) is alive and well.
Unless I missed something, that’s a pretty big misstep in your narration and your research.
In addition, Fear Itself says that the story idea of Carol Anne now being alone in the third installment – is never explained. Actually, yes… it is. The Freeling parents as well as little Robbie are out of the picture, because Carol Anne has been sent to live with extended family.
But these strange inconsistencies and falsehoods are not the cardinal sin perpetrated by Fear Itself. The big problem, is that the film is just plain boring.
As the narrator – discussing terror and fear and a terrible experience which the “character” finds themselves in (thus beginning this discussion of fear), Watson is monotone for the entire running time. It seems that some extra emotion in a film about heightened mental states and a film genre known for screaming women – that there would be a few valleys and peaks in the narration performance. It’s uninspired and does nothing to further engage the viewer.
Another big problem with films like Fear Itself or the far more entertaining Terror in the Aisles – is that the majority of these film clips – many from superior horror films – don’t work as well out of context. You need the build of tension and character development to make these moments powerful. As clips, they’re not necessarily impressive.
Audiences will go into something like this and enjoy seeing chunks from some of their favorites and perhaps make that mental note of “put that one on the list”. But many of the clips chosen didn’t quite match up with the story being told by the narrator. At one point, there’s a discussion on the fear of heights. Sure, some of the segments used made sense, but then they go to a clip of Martin Balsam’s death atop the stairs of the Bates’ house in the original Psycho. Yes, he’s atop a very tall staircase, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone discuss this scene from the point of view of acrophobia. It just felt like a bit of a stretch.
Now – my big gripe is – that while I’m fairly well-educated in film, there’s no way I know enough. There are plenty of classics – genre and not – which I hang my head in shame for having never seen.
What I’m getting at, is that Fear Itself has SPOILERS. The most notable one is a discussion of the two cuts of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the two very different endings. Folks, shoot me down if you must, but I’ve never seen this film. So yes, it’s my fault for never having viewed it, but there are plenty of other films highlighted in Fear Itself which may be new to other viewers. I actually found this particular reveal tacky and ill-conceived – regardless of my own fault in the scenario. Other clips may come from elsewhere in the highlighted film, but not from a film’s ending. And yes, Brazil is something I’ve always wanted to see. Those who are familiar with this beloved film – is knowing the ending (either version) going to ruin my first-time experience? Hmmmm…
Fear Itself is nothing revelatory. It’s not terrible (you won’t be saying “Sorry for the clips show” once it’s over), and you will no doubt delight in seeing some of your favorites chosen as clips. But the film is boring, the theories on fear and how horror films feed us and reflect us, etc. are uninteresting and uninspired. It’s a safe bet that you can skip this one, and take another look at the aforementioned, ultra-cheesy (it’s far more fun in its simplicity) Terror in the Aisles – where you can see Pleasance and Allen ham it up.
The film has played at several film festivals (including the prestigious AFI Film Festival in Hollywood) and has been released on VOD in the UK, but no wider release information is currently available.