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Now we’re talkin’.

We knew going in that reconfiguring the Masters Of Horror series for NBC was going to mean watering things down a little bit for a general audience, but give director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) credit for pushing the envelope with “The Eater.” If there’s ever been a gorier, nastier hour of network television, then I certainly can’t recall it. To be honest, I’d been fairly shocked by the amount of violence and gore that had been smuggled into the first few episodes, but nothing like this. If “The Eater” had been screened for the MPAA, I have no doubt that it would have gotten an “R” rating, but between the general American permissiveness towards violence, the late-night time slot, and perhaps the modest viewership, too, Gordon was able to sneak this one by the gatekeepers.

For my money, this was easily the strongest episode to date and the only one that actually scared me at moments. Leaning heavy on a sickening green-florescent ambience, Gordon confines all of the action to an old police precinct that doesn’t look like it’s had a once-over since the ‘50s. The setting is imposing enough, but Gordon does an excellent job hyping up this week’s monster, a serial killer with a body like Gheorghe Muresan and the chompers of a British hobo. The prisoner is being kept overnight in a holding cell, presumably in the hours before he can be moved to a high-security facility. The cops handling his detainment seem scared out their wits; just getting the cuffs off him is a harrowing ordeal, and we in the audience don’t even know his rap sheet yet.

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Turns out the prisoner is a serial killer deluxe, with upwards of 32 victims in five states. The men he dispatches quickly, but the women he tends to torment for days, and he’s known for sautéing pieces of his victims in a frying pan. He also practices voodoo, and as we soon discover, his propensity to devour the still-beating hearts of his victims gives him the power to shapeshift into them. Three officers are left to watch over him for the night, including a butterball and a hothead (the latter played by Pablo Schreiber, who Wire fans will recognize as Nick Sobotka), as well as a rookie cop played by Elizabeth Moss. When the killer breaks out his voodoo magic, no bars can hold him.

Making resourceful use of the single location, Gordon turns the precinct into a hallucinatory house of horrors, alternating some effective fake shocks (like butterball eating an eyeball-topped pizza or the killer’s hand lunging at Moss when she opens his cell) with some real, honest-to-goodness gore. Who could have imagined that NBC would be the place to go to watch a guy go Bobby Flay on a chunk of human flesh or gnaw off a larger mouthful of ear than Tyson did on Holyfield? Even Moss’ eventual solution for felling the beast involves a shockingly grisly act of self-sacrifice. I had just assumed that she would hurl a fistful of rat poison into his mouth or something, but to make herself the cheese in mousetrap was one hell of a way to go.

I suppose you could argue that Gordon isn’t exactly breaking new ground here, and based on the explicit acknowledgement of Buffalo Bill from Silence Of The Lambs, he and the screenwriters (Richard Chizmar & Johnathon Schaech) are happy to be upfront about it. But “Eater” delivered the goods for me: It’s efficient, atmospheric, well-acted, and scary, and it does a particularly excellent job timing to the commercial breaks. I guess it would have been too much to ask for the network to make this episode the pilot, given its graphic nature, but the show certainly would have started on a better foot.

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Grade: A-

Stray observations:

• For the many of you that probably missed its (very) limited release in a few major cities, Gordon’s black comedy Stuck is one of my favorite movies this year, an unapologetic B-movie inspired by a ripped-from-the-tabloids true story of man’s inhumanity to man. You can find my review here.

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• First rule of shapeshifting: Never shapeshift into a slow-witted, out-of-shape doughboy.

• Apropos of nothing, the title Fear Itself reminds me of a joke a friend once made about a certain misbegotten Michael Crichton adaptation: “We have nothing to fear but Sphere itself.”