Fear Itself (Episode 8)

ON

Skin & Bones

Skin and Bones

Cast:

John Pyper-Ferguson as Rowdy

Molly Hagan as Ellen

Doug Jones as Grady

Brett Dier as Derek

Cole Heppel as Tim

Directed by Larry Fessenden

Review:

If at first you don’t succeed, try television. It’s not a mantra horror filmmakers like to adopt, but it would seem to be the ideology at work within “Skin and Bones,” director Larry Fessenden’s contribution to the NBC Fear Itself series. Despite a tepid audience response to his 2001 film Wendigo, Fessenden clearly still sees potential in the cannibalistic Native American legend and takes another crack at it with this tale of tense family ties that’s boosted by a top-notch Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) performance but suffers from the same second-act suicide that hinders other entries in the series.

“Skin and Bones” is set deep in the forested mountains of the American northwest, at the ranch home of Grady (Jones), his wife and two sons, and his troubled brother “Rowdy.” Sufficiently isolated from the rest of civilization, they’re dependant upon each other for survival, which creates a problem when Grady fails to return from a hunting excursion. While he’s away, Rowdy is the head of the household, a point of contention for his eldest nephew, Derek, who’s convinced his uncle is having an affair with his mother. This tempestuous relationship sets up a nice dynamic, but it begins to lose any relevance once Grady finally appears –- alone, bloody and gaunt, and clearly not the same man who went up the hill ten days prior.

Despite his third billing, Jones proves once again just why Guillermo del Toro seemingly refuses to make a movie without him. As the now bedridden Grady, he resembles the famously zombified Roger from the original Dawn of the Dead, rasping and wheezing his lines but saying much more with just his beady, threatening eyes. There’s dread on the faces of his family as they attempt to nurse him, a feeling that’s reinforced when wise, old ranch hand and resident Native American Eddie Bear diagnoses him with a bad case of wendigo.

Sure enough, it’s not long before Grady is rampaging through the family cabin, screaming madly and taking a bite out of anyone who gets close enough. Apart from the undercranked “shakey-cam” effect Fessenden uses to amplify Grady’s inhuman speed and movement, the wendigo revelation is chillingly effective, as is Rowdy’s tip-toe attempt to confront Grady amid all the shadows and creaky floors of the cabin.

But too quickly “Skin and Bones” becomes a rote chase-and-capture affair, and when screenwriters Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan (who penned installments of Fear Itself‘s precursor Masters of Horror) dilute what should have been a horrific “dinner” scene with painfully hammy dialog, it’s clear their script is running on an empty stomach. The duo writes the family into a climactic standoff where a hanging subplot is resolved — to no one’s surprise — but by this point the proceedings are more silly than suspenseful.

Despite its second-half slide, “Skin and Bones” is still moderately effective overall, the credit due almost entirely to the ability of Jones and the rest of the cast to elevate a script picked clean of originality. Though mostly dry throughout, there are a few meaty scenes to keep bloodhounds sated, and the makeup work — a persistent problem for the Fear Itself series — convincingly transforms Jones into an emaciated monster. The chilling howl of the wendigo adds a touch of sinister uncertainty to the episode’s coda, but its only truly scary implication is that Fessenden may have not yet had his fill of the beastly spirit. As another familiar saying goes, third time’s the charm?