12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E3: The Dog

 The dog in question dies, if you were interested.

Fear The Walking Dead’s third episode is not giving me much hope for the rest of the season. The quality of episodes has been going steadily down since the pilot instead of improving as I’d hoped. Episode Three features some of the most inconsistent pacing and narrative that I’ve ever seen in a TV show, especially one with Fear’s budget. The story limps from one point to another without maintaining consistent tension, and several characters have already displayed attitudes that contradict their actions in previous episodes. I’m still hoping that these are early-episode stumbles and that Fear will eventually straighten itself up. The alternative is dealing with two full seasons of…this. It’s disappointing.

Still, Fear did have its moments this episode. We got to learn a bit more about the Salazar family, who introduced some interesting new character dynamics as well as establishing who’s most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse in one piece. (Spoiler: it’s the dude with the gun that is actually willing to use it). The clear generational divide in the Salazar family, as well as the tension between the American-born Ofelia and her refugee parents, added some realistic tension to a story that clearly needs a dose of it. Reality, that is.

See, another problem that Fear has had is that it’s trying to build a world that doesn’t know about zombies – a world that has no notion of even the fictional version. No myths of corpses rising from the grave to stalk the living, no 80s grindhouse films to laugh at over popcorn. Thus, what the characters face is completely alien to them. They have no way of comprehending or compartmentalizing what is happening to them, because it has no basis in their reality – or even their fiction.

The problem is, the audience already knows all the rules of the zombie genre. Watching characters play catch-up is annoying, and Fear has unfortunately been doing that for three episodes straight. Furthermore, it doesn’t establish what this world has in place of zombie stories – what myths do these people have about death? It’s clearly not the same as our world. Do they have ghosts and killer diseases inside their science fiction? How will that help the characters come to terms with the events going on around them?

So far, the world of Fear hasn’t proven itself to be especially well thought-out. Perceptions of police brutality spark a protest, but the resulting riot seems to be included for the sake of filming chaotic crowd scenes – without really considering that it was started by desperate people trapped with zombies in a situation that was both started by the police and made incredibly worse by the actions they took. If Fear is going to depict these sorts of events, then the writers need to really understand what they’re saying and how. You know who starts riots for funsies? White people. You know who starts riots because they’re legitimately angry, frustrated, and have been rebuffed by the system that’s supposed to protect them? Activists. That’s a very important distinction that Fear seems to have overlooked.

At this point, I can’t honestly recommend continuing with this show to anyone else. On an artistic level, the storytelling just isn’t up to par. It’s lazy, contradicts itself, and doesn’t maintain a consistent level of tension. The visuals are great, but it’s not enough to stick with a show just because it’s pretty. I’m liking the acting so far, but the script is making me groan.

Personally, I’m going to be sticking with Fear at least until the end of the first season because it’s talking about things I find interesting, even if I don’t agree with the show’s perspective on them. But I’m not going to make anyone else do it if they’re not sold already. Maybe things will get better. Most shows establish themselves in the first three episodes. Some nail it in the pilot. And some take a little bit longer. (The 100, for example). Fear is touching on some important and very relevant issues, including racism, class divisions, activism, and the consequences of relying on what’s becoming a police state in-story. I’ll be watching to see what Fear has to say.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E2: So Close Yet So Far

So, looks like I’m reviewing the second episode too.

We kick off right where we left off in the pilot, in the aftermath of our second on-screen walker and first zombie kill, as society starts to crumble at an accelerated rate. The plot felt a bit disjointed in this episode, with strong character moments but no clear overarching thread to weave everything together.

The second episode gives more characterization to Travis’ ex-wife and son, and introduces the Salazar family, giving the cast some economic diversity. We don’t know much about the Salazar family so far, since they were introduced towards the end of the episode, but according to TV Tropes, they are immigrants from El Salvador. I’m curious to see how these characters will develop later on in the series.

Fear has, unfortunately, continued its trend of almost exclusively killing off characters of color. The show runners have responded to the criticism, saying to continue watching in order to see how the story will eventually play out. On one hand, I agree with this. It’s hard to critique a show this early in the season. But on the other, Fear has stepped into a racist and all too common storytelling trope. The best course of action would be to acknowledge it and try to avoid it in the first place, instead of making excuses after the fact.

I think my favorite part of the episode was when it focused on Christopher’s character, and his participation in a rally against what he thinks is police brutality. His sense of justice and need to document what is happening will be interesting to explore later on. Furthermore, the need of various characters in zombie films to “document” the events they experience has been a common thread between a lot of stories, but rarely explored in any meaningful sense. I’m hoping that Christopher’s character arc will give him – and the audience – some sense of how the ability to document and record the zombie apocalypse will impact the story. Last episode showed us a powerful scene of video interpretation, and I’m hopefully that Fear will continue to utilize social media in its storytelling.

It bears repeating that Fear The Walking Dead is trying to do something different than its sister show. Thus, it isn’t structured in the same way. Fear isn’t throwing us full tilt into the zombie apocalypse, but letting it unfold in paranoid, disjointed strokes. There are some advantages to that. The creeping shots of the characters watching and being watched as their world implodes on itself are very well done, as are the subtle nods towards their sister show. I’m curious about the choice to skip the scenes where the characters explain and accept the situation – Madison, Travis, and Nick clearly understand what’s going on – and whether that will be a stylistic note that continues through the rest of the season. It feels like a move more suited to a feature film than a TV series, though.

Personally, I liked that choice. However, I can understand why a lot of viewers felt like it missed the mark. Which is indicative of some underlying problems with the whole show, really. Fear is running into some issues with having its characters play catch-up with what the audience already knows. A lot of the people I’ve been talking to have expressed frustration at the lack of zombie action – half the reason they tuned in. In my view, the problem with Fear is that it hasn’t moved far enough away from its sister show to establish its own visual style. We’ve seen that TV shows in shared universes can be done, and with very different stylistic tones – just look at Arrow and The Flash. However, Fear seems to have run into a wall with establishing itself. It feels like a few more steps should have been taken to mark Fear as its own unique show, visually and stylistically. Yes, it takes place in the same world of The Walking Dead, but Fear is not telling the same story, or in the same way.

For a show that’s already been renewed for a second season, Fear seems to be stumbling a lot in getting off the ground. Other reviews have gone into detail with their issues with the plot and characterization, so I won’t rehash them here. The biggest issue overall that I’ve seen people talking about has been the divide between the characters who know (sort of) what’s going on, and the characters who – for various and understandable reasons – do not. Narratively, it’s frustrating to watch the cast play catch up, and Fear doesn’t go into the reasons why it might be difficult or even traumatic for the characters who do know to explain what has happened to them. Alicia’s frustration with her mother’s behavior, for instance, is an excellent mirror to what a lot of the audience is feeling. One party knows the score and the other – while willing to listen – does not.

Another narrative choice that’s had its share of discussion was how a group of characters, including Christopher, interpreted what Fear indicates was a zombie killing as an act of police brutality. It’s worth noting that the audience approaches the scene on the same level of the characters – there’s nothing to indicate that the killing wasn’t police brutality – and while Christopher’s actions are seen as sympathetic, the protest turns into a riot in under ten minutes. And in that moment, any nuance or thoughtful commentary Fear might have been trying to provide was wiped away.

If you’re going to talk about police brutality and protests against that, you need to do it carefully. And for a show that has displayed the majority of the zombie victims as either people of color or visually coded as poor, that’s something that the show-runners need to be extremely careful of. If there’s commentary to be made about the vulnerability of poor communities of color to disasters, even fantastical ones like the zombie apocalypse, then it needs to be made explicit. At the moment, I’m looking at some very unfortunate racial and economic stereotypes.

Right now, I’m hopeful that Fear will take time to address them. I’m giving the show another episode to decide whether or not I’ll be sticking with it to the end of the season.