Fear Itself

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Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Thursday, June 5 (NBC).

The concept of "fear itself" -- I mean, real fear itself -- can be summed up in a single statement: "Congress has inexplicably voted to allow for a third Bush term." Imagine.

Although nothing found here is quite in that class of sheer unadulterated terror, NBC's 13-week summer horror anthology "Fear Itself" is plenty scary and more than a little bit gruesome (in fact, far more so than we're typically accustomed to in network primetime). The Lionsgate production from creator Mick Garris also is a laudatory excuse to cull an impressive roster of acting, writing and directing talent and whose ranks include an hour directed by John Landis and a segment starring Eric Roberts.

The level of intrigue in the three segments supplied for review (the first three weeks of shows, as it happens) rises measurably with each of the installments so that by the third one, "Fear" has rounded into form for a nice summerlong thrill ride. The only danger looks to be the chance that the blood will overwhelm the greater creativity of the story line.

In Thursday's opener, "Sacrifice," we get a story (penned by creator Garris) that centers on something of an old horror chestnut: the people in an old house off the beaten path who have opted to turn their dwelling into an execution chamber. The twists this time are that the murdered get turned into vampires, and those doing the killing are hot, young blondes (Rachel Miner, Mircea Monroe). In the second segment, "Spooked," Roberts stars as a torturous cop who is made to pay for his sins of the past while running a supposed stakeout inside a haunted house. This is the one that seems particularly stomach-churningly gross in terms of the red stuff that flows. And the twist in the episode penned by Matt Venne and directed by Brad Anderson isn't much of a shocker at all.

However, all is more or less forgiven after watching "Family Man," the third hour that's scheduled to run June 19. Written by Dan Knauf and directed by Ronny Yu ("Bride of Chucky"), this one is a true head manipulator, one with a twist we don't necessarily see coming from a mile away (or even a block). In the psychological thriller, a guy (Colin Ferguson) with a perfect all-American family gets involved in a near-fatal car accident and, while hovering between life and death, is obliged to switch bodies with a serial killer (Clifton Collins) who has just been captured and now awaits judgment. The segment plays havoc with our head in tantalizing ways, leading to a denouement that fairly blows us away, one that is more than worth the trip spent getting there.

All in all, "Fear" is pretty much like most of these genre-specific anthologies: wildly inconsistent, sometimes maddeningly so. But when it hits, it blasts the ball out of the park. When it doesn't, well, at least you have the pools of blood to keep you company.

Production: Lionsgate in association with IE Indy TV; Creator: Mick Garris; Cast: Jeffrey Pierce, Jesse Piemons, Colin Ferguson, Cynthia Watros, Clifton Collins, Eric Roberts, Nicole Leduc, Stephen Martines, Rachel Miner, Mircea Monroe; Executive producers: Keith Addis, Andrew Deane; Co-executive producers: Peter Block; Supervising producer: Grant Rosenberg;  Producers: Adam Goldworm, Ben Browning, Jonathan Hackett; Directors: Brad Anderson, Breck Eisner, Ronny Yu; Teleplay: Mick Garris, Matt Venne, Brad Knauf; Coordinating producer: Diane Salzberg; Associate producer: Randy Nelson; Directors of photography: Alwyn J. Kumst, Attila Szalay, John Spooner; Film editors: Marshall Harvey, Lynne Willingham, Randy Morgan; Music: Bobby Johnston; Casting: Lindsey Kroeger, David Rapaport, Rhonda Fisekci

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