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Chill in the air: Fear Itself registers on 'ooh scary' meter

Nasty neck wounds abound in first two episodes of Fear Itself.

Premiering: Thursday, June 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Various thespians in weekly suspense/horror anthology tales
Created by: Mick Garris

Goose bumps rise to the surface and the flesh occasionally crawls.

These are key indicators that NBC's new Fear Itself, a 13-episode suspense/horror anthology series, is making a pretty good stab at delivering on its title.

Dark, brooding and graphic within broadcast network confines, the first two episodes have a nice tingle to 'em. Each hour is helmed by a different director, with Breck Eisner (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Brad Anderson (The Machinist) taking charge of the first two.

Thursday's opener, subtitled "Sacrifice," begins with four young criminals on the lam in a rickety truck. One has a gaping chest wound, and the vehicle soon breaks down. But in the near-distance, across a wide expanse of snow, is a sprawling old fort that turns out to be inhabited by a trio of pasty but nubile young blondes. So they make a break for the place, where bad things soon keep happening.

The most recognizable star, Jesse Plemons from NBC's Friday Night Lights, brings his halting speech patterns to the role of a semi-dense crook nicknamed "Lemon." Rachel Miner of Showtime's Californication plays one of the seemingly diabolical blondes. It's all very bleak and foreboding, which of course is the basic idea.

Next week's "Spooked" episode centers on veteran scenery-chewer Eric Roberts, first seen as a cop torturing a punk who supposedly knows the whereabouts of a missing boy.

Roberts is something of a revelation here. His performance is notably restrained and thoroughly effective as a single-minded enforcer haunted by a formative tragedy.

"Sometimes you gotta do a wrong to make things right," his character rationalizes before being drummed off the police force. The episode then picks him up 15 years later as a dissipated but still sought after private investigator who specializes in fingering cheating spouses. Larry Gilliard from The Wire plays his young accomplice.

The gumshoe's latest client is yet another woman who says she wants the goods on her philandering husband. An abandoned house across the street will be perfect for spying on him, she says. So he sets up shop and soon starts hearing voices from within the spooky dump. Fear Itself doesn't scrimp when it comes to houses housing dark secrets.

We eventually learn what has driven Roberts' character to the brink of madness. And while somewhat predictable, this episode still has some bite. In a summertime sea of mostly reality junk, Fear Itself stands apart as an adventuresome attempt to get dark and dangerous. Forgive a few storytelling flaws and you just might find yourself spellbound.

Grade: B+