Commentary, TV

American Horror Story: A Spectral Look @ Season 1

January 31, 2012


Review of American Horror Story, Season 1

As far as I can recall, the last pair of instances in TV history where spookfiends snacked on weekly treats of sexy macabre, putrefaction and horror kitsch were thanks to the erstwhile Tales From the Crypt and (perhaps) my personal cult fave, Twin Peaks.  The former a HBO production; the latter being the murder-mystery-slash-psychodrama-series on ABC, created by nightmare-cinema auteur David Lynch.  Sure, there have been other attempts at serial horror and creep since then.  But nothing quite like the two aforementioned bits of TV chimeras ever quite measured up, now did they?

Last year,  that all changed.  Horror fans around the country cozied up against the pilot episode of American Horror Story, a refreshingly risqué horror-drama FX series that pushes the boundaries on what TV-MA really means.

Created and produced by TV icons Ryan Murphy (Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee) and Brad Falchuk (Nip/Tuck, Glee), the aptly named American Horror Story follows the lives of the picture-perfect, all-American Harmon family, who move from Northeast USA to a quaint, sunny Los Angeles suburb in hopes of mending the wounds that stand in the wake of an extramarital misstep (courtesy of the paterfamilias), and a recent miscarriage.

The family is made up of psychiatrist Dr. Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton) and their teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga).  They move into a restored Victorian-style mansion (unsurprisingly filigreed by vine overgrowth), blissfully unaware (at least at first) by their new home’s neighborhood term of “endearment”, “Murder House.”

Murder House, as it stands, is home to a teeming lineage of restless spirits (most of whom have been killed or murdered within its many Victorian nooks and crannies).  Corporeally, they served as former occupants of the mansion that date as far back as the 1940s, particularly around the time of The Black Dahlia murder (yeah, they have an episode devoted to that; and yeah, it bests the snoozer that was Brian De Palma’s take on it).

So that explains the steal of a deal they landed on the mansion, right?  Someone burn the real estate agent at the stake!

For those of you not entirely familiar with the show (and would rather catch it in one fell swoop), I won’t go into the gory details (because they are, quite literally, gory).  But there are a couple aspects to the show that I’d like to briefly underscore in the context of season 1.

AHS, for all its disturbing imagery and shiny patent-leather production value, doesn’t entirely take itself seriously.  Not seriously enough to harken The Shining, at least.  The makeup artistry and acting talent is on par with some of the best popcorn horror fare of the 80s and 90s (barely any CGI shortcuts here), but there is an underlying streak of parody and satire that sticks to the cornea like an eyelash.

The title of the show isn’t any less self-referential, either.  Producers Murphy and Falchuk aren’t out to reinvent the genre in any sweeping way (minus a repertoire of unusual shots, cam-angles, and cuts).  AHS  playfully nods at an encyclopedia of various haunted-house mythos (see 13 Ghosts, The Amityville Horror, House, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, House on Haunted Hill, Hell Night, et al).  Moreover, Murphy’s fascination with the macabre shouldn’t be surprising to ex-addicts of Nip/Tuck, a drama series that didn’t shy away from its gaggle of “body horror” motifs.

Murphy does, however, break a couple barriers.

To wit, the specters in AHS move in out of their incorporeal, invisible states at will.  It’s almost too casual.  There is no conjuring process, no Ouija boards, no simmer-to-boil buildups, no flying chairs or rattling pots and pans.  Season 1 kicks off with the plain-as-day attendance of the dead, each with their own limbo-wheel agendas.  They knock on the Harmon door as guests in flesh and blood; masquerade as present-day neighbors; or even disguise themselves as younger, more attractive ghosts — namely, as the quintessential everyman’s wet-dream of a chambermaid (va-va-voomily played by Alexandra Breckenridge).

Within the bindings and rules of the mansion, in fact, they’re able to maim, kill, copulate, and impregnate the living (more on that last bit, later).  As the season ages, the ensemble cast’s dead-to-living ratio becomes rather labyrinthine and hard to follow, which, in turn, makes it difficult for the viewer to form emotional alliances with the characters (spectral or real).

Secondly, the filming techniques are a tad perplexing.  There are roughly twice as many shots per scene as there is for any other FX production (or standard TV show, for that matter).  The dialogue goes by very quickly, and the breakneck shotlist follows suit.  The effect on the viewer is one of disorientation and quasi-hypnosis.

The attention-deficit style employed here is certainly an “effect” well suited for the genre, of course, as it gives us an idea of what the characters’ conscious POVs might be like — that “waking life” experience.  Still (call me a traditionalist), I tend to prefer the Kubrickian method of shot composition akin to The Shining, where the camera rests in a fixed state as it conveys disturbing nuances and haunted symmetry.  Conversely, the aftereffects of an AHS episode (on some viewers) is one of an “extended trailer,” rather than a fully conceived hour of storytelling.  Style, in short, tends to supersede narrative, and that’s rarely a good thing in my handbook.

Yet, AHS remains indulgently entertaining, nonetheless.  It fills a morbid void that’s starkly lacking in television.  Sure, AMC has the market cornered with zombies, but FX has the psychosexual, sadistic ghosts.  Moreover, while Murphy and Falchuk’s influences appear to stem from that cobwebbed chest of spook-house tropes (and, maybe, David Lynch’s fetishistic Mulholland Drive), they seem to be toying with grander biblical themes, a la The Omen.  One of the most hair-raising moments of season 1, for instance, has to belong to the episode entitled, “Spooky Little Girl.”  Here, psychic Billie Dean (Sarah Paulson) enlightens Constance (Jessica Lange) on what the Catholic Church believes will mark the beginning of the world’s End.  Namely, the conception of a child between the living and the dead.  By the time season 1 reaches its gnarly cul-de-sac, the antichrist plot thread stands as one of the more promising aspects-to-be in season 2.

Acting-wise, the ham-handed script demands for melodrama and dark comedy.  The characters move between a wide range of emotions very quickly (and they don’t appear to live for very long, either).  Still, at least three members of AHS’ casting talent seem to be taking their roles to a higher, vicarious level.  The first is Jessica Lange, who plays Constance Langston with a Southern Gothic stroke of brilliance.  If David Lynch and Tennessee Williams mixed their DNA, Constance might be the result.  When she steps into the frame, she burns, drawls, smolders, amuses, tantalizes and emotes convincingly (when the script calls for it).  She makes the script disappear.

(Lange recently acquired a Golden Globe [supporting actress] for her part as Constance, and it’s indisputably deserved.)

Next up is Connie Britton’s Vivien, who comes to embody season 1’s lean sense of pragmatism, especially in lieu of so much spookery.  Without Britton’s sincerity, I’d argue, the Harmon family would seem a free-floating trio of impulses and poor decision-making.  Just observe how painstakingly empirical and oblivious McDermott’s Ben Harmon is in the face of paranormal unpleasantries.  He’s written well (don’t get me wrong), but he’s clearly the obligatory counterpoise to Vivien’s prophylactic instincts, which include selling the house or calling it quits on a failing marriage that no proverbial defib could hope to resuscitate.

Lastly, we have Denis O’Hare as distorted former Murder House resident Larry Harvey, whose story is revealed gradually throughout the season.  O’Hare does a wonderful job of capturing the humanity of this character, even despite all the exaggerated quirks that come with the script.  He’s at once shuddersome, loathsome and worthy of our compassion — insofar as his story largely revolves around his misguided, and ever-so unrequited, love for Constance.  His final scenes in season 1 are close to heartbreaking.  O’Hare is a distinctly versatile actor.

As Russell Edgington, he was the best thing to happen to season 3 of True Blood, which was an otherwise lackluster season of dud-characters and bland plot threads.  Here, he reverses the suave, kingly, southern flamboyance akin to Russell; keeps the weird; and adds vulnerability, scars, disfigurement and a broken heart.

If you’re feeling short of a good scare, be sure to catch American Horror Story on Amazon instant video or iTunes.

Written by: Richard Sanchez
Season 1 of American Horror Story
Date published: 02/01/2012
4 / 5 stars

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