Brian M. Raftery
September 29, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On paper, at least, Fox’s Freakylinks looked like a fright to remember. The network that made spooky sexy with The X-Files would team up with the originators of The Blair Witch Project to create a multimedia scare-fest about a group of paranormal-obsessed twentysomethings. And in order to ratchet up the fear factor, the series would be augmented by an all-too-realistically creepy website and shot partially on handheld digital cameras.

Exorcise all the hype, though, and a really scary story emerges: Just weeks after Fox trotted out the show’s toothy cast — including teen-movie staple Ethan Embry (Can’t Hardly Wait) — at this year’s TV-critics press tour, executive producer Tommy Thompson exited the series (citing ”creative differences” with the net), and coexec producer David Simkins (Vengeance Unlimited) was given eight days to rework scripts and story lines to give Freakylinks‘s dark tone a shot of levity. To complicate matters further, members of Haxan — the filmmaking team that produced and marketed Blair Witch — have quietly distanced themselves from the series, with only website wizard Gregg Hale still actively working on the project.

The only thing that would make Freakylinks more disturbing to Fox execs is a sudden name change — oh wait, that happened this spring when the stupefying syntax of Fearsum became Freakylinks to reflect the show’s theme-shift from foreboding to somewhat fun-loving.

So how did Freakylinks get so freaky? According to Simkins, it all started with the grim pilot. In it, we meet Derek Barnes (Embry), a webmaster who devotes his time to tracking down myths and legends and posting them on his site. We also meet, briefly, his twin brother, who’s found dead in a bathtub by Barnes in the premiere’s gloomiest downer of a sequence. Even for such a purposely chilling show, Barnes cradling his dead brother’s body makes for disturbing viewing. ”The network and the studio … wanted to make sure that the tone of the series did not reflect on a weekly basis the tone of the pilot,” says Simkins. ”They wanted to make sure the show had its share of laughs, its share of scares, its share of fun, its share of terror.” Thompson, however, wasn’t looking to have fun. ”[He] heard those requests and saw them as a challenge which he didn’t really want to take the time to fulfill,” says Simkins. (Thompson’s agent says he left to pen a pilot for Imagine Television/CBS.)

Another bump in the night, er, road: Fox’s track record with slightly out-there shows is uneven; sure, they’ve done a smashup job on The X-Files, but where were they when Harsh Realm and Brimstone ran into ratings trouble? Mix in the comments made by Fox head Sandy Grushow about the network needing to branch out from sci-fi, and you have to wonder: How is Simkins going to shake that this-show’s-in-trouble vibe? ”That’s something I really can’t think about all that much,” he sighs. ”It’s up to Fox. I have faith that they will see the quality that we’re trying to deliver here.” In other words, give him a freakin’ chance.

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