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Complete Buffy reviews: Fear, itself

by Shadow LockedAugust 28, 2014

How exactly do you define fear? It’s not something that can be broken down and analysed in seconds, since one man’s fear is another man’s shrug. Terrified of spiders? Well, someone, somewhere is clutching a spider in his or her clutched hands with nonchalant weariness as they creep to the door to deposit this Fiend Of Eight Legs in the outside world. Scared of the dark? Try reconciling that with miners, stargazers or even club DJs, squinting against the gloom to make sure they don’t stick their scratchy copy of Bombalurina’s Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini on the turntable. I’ve read accounts of people with morbid fears of baked beans, crowd singing and water – which just proves that when it comes to fears and phobias, us humans are a complex bunch.

Maybe that’s why Fear Itself works like the proverbial magic charm. On one level, it’s a frequently creepy and unsettling spin on the bog standard Haunted House Of Horrors routine. On the other, it’s an interesting look at the underlying fears of the Scooby Gang. In a sense, we’ve been here before, having visited the world of Nightmares in Season One. Fear Itself, on the other hand, is smaller in scale, since the fear’s only confined to the frat house at the Sunnydale University campus. It’s also notable for setting up some pivotal plot points of this season – whereas in Nightmares, Buffy’s fear of her father abandoning and rejecting her was the only major personal terror in amongst the generic fears of singing in public and getting caught in underwear, in Fear Itself, these demons are much more personal in scope, stemming from the Scoobies’ current lifestyles and situations.

“Fear Itself is the first real strike of the season, combining all the elements together that make Buffy The Vampire Slayer such a popular show”

Apart from that, it’s hard to fault Fear Itself. Season Four has so far been enjoyable and fun, but in all honesty, hasn’t produced any major classics. Fear Itself is the first real strike of the season, combining all the elements together that make Buffy The Vampire Slayer such a popular show. It’s got plenty of funny moments, it’s genuinely scary in places and also has lots of great moments for the regular characters. Characterisation has always been this show’s forte, and Fear Itself looks at the crossroads facing the Scoobies by confronting them with their own fears and anxieties. There’s a telling moment early on in the story when we see Joyce (in a welcome cameo) telling Buffy about her own personal fears of initially not being able to make friends in Sunnydale. “I don’t think I made a single new friend the year we moved to Sunnydale,” she says to Buffy, explaining that fear was the cause. “I didn’t believe I could trust anyone again.” It’s a far cry from the things that go bump in the night, but Joyce’s own fear of loneliness and isolation is no less valid, and it’s one that most people can relate to.

The Scooby Gang, in the meantime are too busy getting ready for the delights of a Halloween frat party. The frat guys are giving it their best shot with OTT sound effects, decorations and even a mysterious mystical symbol. Clearly these guys have not been in the loop, given that any mystical hoo-haa is a must to avoid in a town like Sunnydale. A quick drop of accidental Oz blood turns the symbol into a wibbly wobbly force for bad, and as quick as you can say “It’s alive!” Giles-style, the frat party starts to go horribly awry. Innocent objects become terrifyingly real. Grapes become floating eyeballs. Rubber bats become pecking creatures of the night. Best of all, a dummy skeleton becomes a knife-wielding, rotting cadaver, leering at Buffy with its swivelling, popping eyeballs and fixed skeletal grimace. It’s one of the many macabre sights that pepper Fear Itself. All of the trappings of the horror world are used to chilling effect, like disembodied, pulling hands from the floorboards and talking, severed heads. It’s a treat for horror fans everywhere, and after the soapiness of the previous episode, this is a welcome move.

Willow’s got not just this fear to battle with, she’s also entangled in her own escalating interest in magic. Oz has already voiced his concerns earlier in the episode, and there’s signs that Willow’s interest in magic may get out of control if not checked. In a bid to find a lost Buffy, Xander and Oz, Willow summons a locator spell – a buzzing green glowing fly thing. Just one problem. The green locator fly becomes two, then four, then a whole swarm of them. It’s a pointed reminder of how misuse of magic will drown Willow and swallow her whole, and a couple of seasons down the line, she’ll learn this lesson for herself the hard way.

“It’s an unsettling episode, not just because of the horror movie elements, but because our heroes are forced to face their fears”

Buffy, too, despite her bluster, fears loneliness. As the guy with the raspy, croaky voice explains to her, Buffy’s main fear is that she’ll become lonely – her calling as the Slayer sometimes gets in the way of her friendship with the other Scoobies, who sometimes don’t feel as important or special. It’s a fear that will not only manifest itself later this season, but in the fifth and seventh runs of the show. Altogether, it’s an unsettling episode, not just because of the horror movie elements, but because our heroes are forced to face their fears.

“Tucker Gates provides some of the slickest direction this season, with some memorably striking visuals”

Like all good Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes, Fear Itself caters for all parties. Whether you like good old fashioned horror, intelligent characterisation, snazzy special effects and photography or even a sly chuckle, Fear Itself scores highly on all counts. It’s my personal favourite out of all the Halloween episodes, and it would actually make my own personal Top 10 of Buffy episodes. Fear has never been examined quite so stylishly and cleverly as this. Top drawer stuff.

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