EDITOR'S NOTE: To bring "Project: Fear Itself" to a fitting conclusion, Craig J. Clark ventured to the Northwest suburbs of Chicago in order to view the final episode, "The Circle," with Joe Blevins in person. What follows is a transcript of their post-show conversation.
Joe: Sew buttons.
Craig: Yeah. And to think I drove all the way up here from southern Indiana for that.
Joe: Hey, it's better than what Johnathon Screech or whatever came up with for the screenplay to "The Circle." Wait, is it a screenplay? Isn't teleplay the word?
Craig: It is, and I actually was talking about the teleplay. And the guy's last name is Schaech, by the way, and he's not the only one responsible for this mess of an episode. His writing partner Richard Chizman (although Cheeseman might be more appropriate) is equally to blame.
Joe: I guess I was thinking of "Screech" because "The Circle" was roughly as scary as an episode of, let's say, Saved By the Bell: The College Years. Actually, not quite as scary. The people in this episode only had to deal with glum trick-or-treaters and this big wall of ink outside their remote cabin. They didn't have to face Dustin Diamond or Mario Lopez. That would have been more terrifying.
Craig: Wait, was Mario Lopez actually on The College Years? I thought he went off and made a TV movie about Greg Louganis or somebody. Some Olympic diver.
Joe: He did, but then it was right back to playing Zack Slater.
Craig: No, no. He played A.C. Slater. Zack Morris was played by that other guy, you know, the one who starred in Dead Man on Campus a.k.a. Dead Film Career Walking.
Joe: But he came back to haunt us on NYPD Blue. And speaking of people coming back in weirdly mutated form to menace us, this episode "The Circle" is full of that kind of crap.
Craig: Oh, dear. You really want to talk about the episode? I figured we could just run out the clock trading half-remembered Saved by the Bell trivia. I mean, we didn't even mention the chick who paraded around in her birthday suit in Showgirls. Hey, didn't one of the actresses in this episode kinda look like her?
Joe: It's hard to tell, because from what I remember, the actresses in this episode spend most of their time crawling around on the floor vomiting up something that looks like Quaker State.
Craig: I meant one of witches from the beginning. Remember, the part that looked like outtakes from the trick-or-treating sequence that opened "The Spirit Box"?
Joe: Wow... "The Spirit Box." Remind me, was that an episode of One Day at a Time? I kid, of course. I vaguely remember that scene. But Fear Itself episodes tend not to stay with me very long. I mean, I watched "The Circle" less than an hour ago, and I'm already having difficulty remembering the slightest detail about it.
Craig: That's understandable. Still, before this one completely evaporates from your memory, what did you think of the experience of watching an episode called "The Circle" on a little plastic circle called a DVD? Spooky, huh?
Joe: I don't really know. The circle motif felt a little forced. Like there's this evil book that's a main prop, and it has this big circle on the cover, right? And all I could think of was that Oprah magazine.
Joe: That's the one. Wasn't Oprah the one who got people into that book, The Secret? I've never read that book, but the evil book in this movie kind of looked like it, what with that old-timey penmanship and all. Obviously, if you're watching a horror episode, and you're thinking about Oprah and The Secret, then someone's not doing his job. We watched the featurette about the making of the show and the director seemed on-point, so I'm laying the blame for this one at the feet of the writer slash star, Johnny Whatshisface, the Peter Gallagher-looking guy in the brown zip-up turtleneck thing from the LL Bean catalog. Remember that guy?
Craig: How could I forget that guy? I was the one who called him on his Peter Gallagher-ness. Still, even if he was the driving force behind the episode, I'll bet he didn't have final approval of props or anything. He was probably too busy sitting in his trailer dreaming up future Schaech/Chizman projects.
Joe: Well, his name was in the credits a bunch of times. I do know that. The more times your name appears in the credits, the more blame you take for the final product. That seems fair. This was essentially a Johnathon Schaech vehicle. I mean, it was practically "all Schaech Treatment, all the time." I think he even played one of those little girls at the beginning of the show, and I believe he knitted that turtleneck himself.
Craig: Would that make him a triple-threat? Writer/actor/knitter?
Joe: I didn't find him terribly threatening, no matter how much of a multi-hyphenate he is. That's the trouble here. This was another Fear Itself episode that wasn't even remotely scary. I think the pivotal moment was when Schaech-N-Baech wrestled around with a possessed woman in a dimly lit hallway. Now that sounds fairly exciting, right? But this was shot Fear Itself-style, meaning blurry and incomprehensible. You couldn't even tell what was going on. It might have been two actuaries squabbling over who gets the last cruller. But the show was educational. I mean, I learned that you can't keep an unstoppable evil force out of your house with towels. Doesn't work.
Craig: Not even when that unstoppable evil force is merely the manifestation of the monster from a horror author's bestselling novel? Speaking of which, I lost count of all the allusions to Stephen King. First of all, the guy's based out of Maine. Second, the episode's about a writer with writer's block, and it seems like every other Stephen King character is a writer, frequently with writer's block. And then there were the obvious references to "The Word Processor of the Gods," The Dark Half and The Shining, although this episode's variation on "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" was a bit more of a mouthful. I also noted references to Evil Dead 2 and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, even Groundhog Day and The Neverending Story. And then, of course, there's The Ring, which wasn't explicitly referenced, but the comparison is unavoidable.
Joe: If I were going to compare "The Circle" to anything, I'd probably say it's most like... well, like every other episode of Fear Itself, really. It's trying to be all shadowy and menacing and dark and disturbing, but the people in it all look like they could be hawking home electronics on QVC. Let me give you a for instance. There's this hot blondie witchiepoo who shows up maybe two-thirds of the way through. And she's stalking around the room, trying to be sexy and dangerous and the whole schmear. Her invasion of the story should be a game changer, but somehow all she manages to do is make "The Circle" even more boring. It's kind of appropriate that this episode was about a group of people trapped in a circle of black nothingness, because that's how the Fear Itself viewer is likely to feel each and every week.
Craig: Well, no more, Joe. After all, this is the last episode of Fear Itself -- and it never even aired on American television. Do you think NBC's programming executives were attempting to shield us from something... ominous? I mean, the rule of thumb is you try to save the best for last and this was in no way, shape or form the best episode Fear Itself had to offer. Even on the page it must have seemed like a bore, and that was before the tepid dialogue was put into the mouths of some of the most awful overacters Canada could produce. Especially the brunette who played Kate, the wife of Master Schaech's editor. She had one of the worst freak-outs I've ever seen outside of a Scared Straight-style anti-drug screed.
Joe: The brunette was maybe my favorite thing about the episode, to be honest. Right off the bat, her line readings were very noticeably off -- too stiff and loud. But then weird supernatural stuff starts going down, and she goes into insane bad actress overdrive and really starts earning that big fat NBC paycheck. I never want to see her in anything again, but I was glad she was in this. Thank you, crazy loud brunette lady, for providing the few moments of amusement in this 43 minutes of blah. In a way, "The Circle" was a very appropriate finale for Fear Itself. As you noted, it's not nearly the show's best, but it isn't the worst either. And it features many of the time-honored and beloved Fear Itself tropes: doorknobs turning slowly, creepy kids, exposition-heavy dialogue, people in dark rooms calling out to each other, and -- oh, yeah -- a twist ending. Where would a Fear Itself episode be without a feeble twist ending?
Craig: Still on the air?
Joe: Possibly. But I wanted to ask you a plot question, which would require me to spoil the holy living bejeezus out of this episode--
Craig: Oh, go right ahead, Joe. It's not anyone ever has -- or ever will -- actually see "The Circle," outside of you and me.
Joe: Okay, well, the characters, it turns out, are stuck in this constantly repeating Moebius strip of time, doomed to play out the same scenario over and over forever. Okay, I'm cool with that. These people are tools and probably wouldn't be doing anything interesting with their lives anyway. Go ahead, God, put 'em in a badly written horror story for all eternity. Fine. But -- and here's my objection -- there are these two little girls who appear to present Schaech Yerbouti with his evil Oprah book, you dig? Okay, their part of the story only lasts a minute or so. But if the story is going to repeat itself endlessly, that means these two kids are going to have to keep showing up to do their part over and over. And they're just minor supporting players! What a waste! These little kids might have gone on to cure cancer or something, but no. Some horror writer dabbles in extracurricular nookie with a witch, and that means these girls are stuck playing their underwritten roles until the end of time. What are they doing for the rest of the loop when they're offstage, so to speak? I imagine that they're in some kind of Green Room of the Damned, smoking, drinking, waiting for their cue. "Oh, crap, it's time to give that guy his stupid devil book again." What's your take on this, Craig?
Craig: Joe, I think you've just put more thought into this episode than anyone who was actually involved in its making. Congratulations.
Joe: Typical! Schaech the Monkey is a terrible God to his characters, even the one who's played by him.
Craig: And if I were him, I would have fired the makeup person -- or at least kept them away from the mascara. By the end it looked like he was trying out for a Bangles video or something.
Joe: Couldn't have said it better myself. So... are we done? Have we discussed "The Circle" to its fullest extent?
Craig: I don't know. Did we mention that it was actually based on a short story? I believe that's a first for Fear Itself, unless... Wasn't "The Sacrifice" based on a short story? Have we truly gone full circle? Is there a mildly retarded man-child named Lemmon lurking behind the next corner waiting to pounce on us as soon as we leave here?
Joe: Yes. With "The Circle," Fear Itself has somehow lapped itself. Will the circle be unbroken? By and by, Lord. By and by. There's a better horror anthology series awaiting. In the sky, Lord. In the sky. But, getting back to your point, being a Fear Itself episode based on a short story is like being a quadruple amputee with a nice hat. It may be a swell hat, but it doesn't do you much good when your nose itches.
Craig: I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's analogy about the trick of the dog standing on its hind legs. The wonder is not so much that it's being done well, but that it's being done at all. I'd say that's pretty apt since most of the episodes of Fear Itself belong in a kennel. The kind of kennel where the family dog gets dropped off at the beginning of summer vacation and then never gets picked up again.
Joe: Sad but true. I'd just like to wrap up by saying that the moral of this episode was that, if you're a writer, you should write pornography instead of horror. Because, after all, if you're going to write yourself into an inescapable loop, you might as well enjoy yourself. Was there an overall moral to Fear Itself besides "Don't watch Fear Itself?" Or is there something you'd like to say to Fear Itself creator Mick Garris?
Craig: Probably just that if he should return to the television anthology well for a fourth time, he should seriously consider adapting more short stories instead of letting his writers come up with their own, highly derivative yarns. Not that "The Sacrifice" and "The Circle" were any great shakes, but they were leagues ahead of barrel scrapings like "Community" and "In Sickness and in Health" -- and those are two of the episodes that aired. Oh, yes. And one other thing: stay away from networks that could possibly contract Olympic fever and forget all about your show while in a flu-ridden delirium. So, until next time, Joe...
Joe: Unless "The Circle" turns out to be one of those Ringu deals where we both die seven days after watching it.
Craig: Well, if that's the case, it's been an honor and privilege working with you and I guess I'll see you in Hell. Let's just hope they don't have Fear Itself on an endless loop there.