From greatness comes greatness. From gods come gods. As Dionysius sprang from the loins of Zeus, so Breck Eisner sprang from the loins of Michael Eisner, and we the viewing public are all the luckier for that fact. While Eisner the Elder's triumphs are many and myriad, it is of the younger Eisner I now write, for it is he who directed "The Sacrifice," the inaugural episode of Fear Itself, a new horror anthology series currently airing on the National Broadcasting Company. Reader, I tell you, a more stirring curtain raiser this series could not have asked for. "The Sacrifice" is beautiful and grotesque, a phantasmagoria of horrific delights for all five of the senses. If there were any lingering doubt even after Sahara, "The Sacrifice" proves that Breck Eisner is a master. This episode is a masterpiece, truly a master's piece.
When its plot and characters are described in broad, abstract terms, "The Sacrifice" sounds like nothing more than rote Guignol-by-the-numbers horror hackwork of the type so regularly churned out by artless Philistines for consumption in the multiplexes of Middle America. A carload of virile young men, their automobile mysteriously sabotaged in a remote and desolate area, take shelter in a secluded and foreboding lodge, which proves to be the home of three siren-like blonde sisters who share a terrifying and deadly secret. Ho-hum, do I hear you say? Seen it all before, have you? Clearly, you have underestimated this director. Like the shampoo that bears his name, Breck Eisner brings shine, vitality, and bounce to this dry, damaged material. (Is it any wonder that Hollywood has anointed him as a sort of curator of its own storied past, tasking him with reimagining The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Crazies, and Flash Gordon for the cinema audiences of 2009 and 2010?)
Eisner more than redeems this potentially dire material with any of a number of gifts, not least of which is a flair for characterization. Like Altman, Eisner is clearly an "actor's director." He allows his actors plenty of breathing room and is extremely generous in giving them showcase moments throughout the production. Whether they are screaming, running, or shouting out each other's names, each of the four (possibly three or even five) young men emerge as true individuals, characters about whom we can and do care. The blondes, too, are clearly delineated. One has cleavage, for instance. Another does not speak. And then there is a third, I believe as well. Although I cannot for the life of me remember the names of any of these characters or how exactly the story resolved itself (for I napped through a great deal of the third act, a regrettable situation owing not to any fault in the program but rather to a weakness on behalf of your humble scribe for Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill -- damn you, Boone, and your delicious, delicious poison!), I know that this tale has taken up permanent residence in my dreams alongside the Grimm tales my mother read to me during my formative years.
When one encounters a work such as "The Sacrifice," one is tempted to allow it entrance to the royal chamber of one's heart and then seal that chamber off forever. But the constraints of this project will simply not allow it, for next week brings us a new installment of Fear Itself. I tremble in anticipation.
Well, then. Where to start? I believe the obvious thing to do would be to take a long, hard look at my esteemed colleague's summary and determine whether he is, indeed, trembling in anticipation or if this is, in fact, due to a sadder truth - that he is stark raving bonkers.
First of all, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he is in the employ of the Eisners after his ebullient praise of both of their works. Putting aside the elder Eisner (calling him "Eisner the Elder" makes him sound like a wizard of Middle Earth -- and an evil wizard at that) for the time being, let us focus on Breck since he is the one who put his directorial stamp on Thursday night's thoroughly mediocre horror effort. Frankly, I'm not surprised that he hasn't done much since 2005's Sahara, which not only grossed less than half of its estimated $160 million budget, but also provoked a lawsuit by novelist Clive (Raise the Titanic) Cussler, who sued for breach of contract and claimed that the poor quality of the film diminished the value of his Dirk Pitt novels. And who could live down the shame of having their first film (in Eisner's case, 1996's Recon) dismissed as being "Horrible even for a student film" by DisneyFreak96 on the Internet Movie Database? But let us not dwell on Eisner's past transgressions. The ones taken in "The Sacrifice" should be more than sufficient.
Fortunately for Eisner, he doesn't have to bear the responsibility for the episode's faults on his shoulders alone. Mick Garris also has much to answer for it since he not only wrote the teleplay, but also created Fear Itself as a kind of broadcast television version of the Masters of Horror series he produced for cable. He even brought some of the same directors (John Landis and Stuart Gordon have both contributed upcoming installments) along for the ride. The change of venue, of course, means that the filmmakers can't rely on strong language, nudity or gore to ramp up the horror. Instead, clever writing, original ideas and the power of suggestion will be required to carry the day and sadly "The Sacrifice" is severely lacking on all of those fronts. My colleague may have nodded off during the third act, but I, alas, did not, so I got to learn all of the tedious secrets behind this tired mélange of The Village, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs and every vampire film you've ever seen -- as well as some you didn't. (There's even a whiff of Nothing But Trouble in there. Probably unintentional since it's the same story point that the episode shares with Chain Saw, but I once sat through that sad, sad excuse for a comedy and I doubt I'll ever get another chance to reference it.)
Another thing that works against "The Sacrifice" and, indeed, will be a major hurdle for all future installments, is the fact that it is interrupted every five minutes or so by a commercial break, thus dissipating any tension that might have been building up. Not that Eisner and Garris were able to build much tension, or develop their characters in any meaningful way. Garris's knack for dialogue also appears to be greatly lacking since fully half of the lines are variations on "Hello?" and "Help!" and "Lemmon!" -- with several demerits given for the frequency with which Lemmon explains the origin of his name. Each time he met a new character I groaned inwardly, knowing that at some point he would launch into yet another self-deprecating speech about it. By the time he was bound and suspended from the ceiling, his blood dripping into a plate on the floor, I was thrilled that he would finally have another topic of conversation.
With any luck, future installments won't be quite so watered-down and predictable as this one, but I'm not exactly holding my breath. Of course, maybe if I did that to the point of lightheadedness I would be able to share my colleague's unbridled enthusiasm for this project. As of yet, it has not impressed.