Thursday, October 20, 2011

TV REVIEW: American Horror Story (2011)

FX Channel's new series, American Horror Story (from creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) commences with the proverbial "crime in the past" (in 1978); one that looks very much like something out of the slasher film classic Prom Night (1980). 

And, of course, if you're a horror fan, that's a very good thing. 

As all genre admirers know, the crime in the past is the seed for terror in the present; a seed allowed to grow -- like an unnoticed weed -- until ready to blossom.

Here, in the series prologue, two nasty twin boys -- after being warned -- venture inside the basement of a classic Los Angeles Victorian, one built in 1920.  It's the home of one of the original "doctor to the stars," apparently, and the two boys meet a horrific, bloody end in one of the dark, subterranean rooms.

Cut to "Today," and this fully-restored home becomes the new residence of a 21st century American family, the Harmons. 

Having relocated from Boston, this family is dealing with some pretty serious turmoil. Mom, Vivien (Connie Britton) just had a traumatic miscarriage late in her pregnancy.  Worse, she recently discovered her psychiatrist husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott) engaged in a sexual liaison with a girl half his age.  Not surprisingly, Vivien and Ben's daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga) has little affection for either parent, and is very alienated.   Meanwhile, the Harmons' new next-door neighbor is the strange, faintly-sinister Constance (Jessica Lange), a Tennessee Williams heroine as if re-imagined through the lens of David Lynch.

Very soon, strange things begin happening in the Harmon's "happy" new home.  For one, their new maid, Moira, appears different...depending on who's doing the looking.  Vivien sees Moira as an older, matronly woman (Frances Conroy), while Ben sees her as a young seductress, an ongoing carnal temptation (Alexandra Breckinridge).   For another thing, the house seems to boast a personality and agenda all its own.  Fans of the haunted house genre will recall that most productions of this type (Burnt Offerings, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, etc.,) feature a kind of "honeymoon" period where everything is good; before everything turns sour. 

Notably, there's no honeymoon period for the new homeowners in American Horror Story.  And yes, that says something about how fast our culture moves in 2011.  In today's real estate market, how many honeymoons are there, really?

In the first two episodes of American Horror Story, the Harmon family gets acquainted with its new home.  Upstairs in the attic is a kitted-up S&M den...left intact from the previous owner, right down  to some black creepy sex suit. 

Down in the basement is a kind of morgue or doctor's office, and in the first episode, one of Ben's patients, a school-shooter-in-the-making named Tate (Evan Peters) seems to unleash a demon down there.

In the second episode, "Home Invasion," a group of apparently drug-addled Mansonite cultists break into the Harmon home in hopes of reliving a famous murder that occurred there in 1968.  Delightfully, this episode opens with a violent prologue (another "crime in the past" transgression) that evokes not just that era of American history  (with clips of Laugh-In on the television), but the horror genre of that day too. 

Spcifically, the story of a psychologically-disturbed killer who breaks into the house and attacks two young nurses deliberately mirrors an  infamous (and suspenseful) Alfred Hitchcock Hour program from 1965 entitled "An Unlocked Window."  To cement the association to Hitchcock, this prologue actually re-purposes Psycho's soundtrack, making the connection to the Master inescapable.

Horror is notoriously difficult to do well on television.  David Lynch mastered it with Twin Peaks, and Chris Carter aced it with The X-Files and Millennium.  I suppose the trick is in how well you combine "terror" (an emotion  out of the ordinary) with a homogenized medium, one, essentially, for the masses.  

Because it airs on a cable station like The Walking Dead, An American Horror Story is able to showcase far  more disturbing imagery than a traditional series, such as Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974), might.  But the talents behind this series, including vets Tim Minear and James Wong, seem to understand that the real key to vetting terror on television rests in creating raw, decorum-shattering imagery from words. 

Accordingly, the teleplays for American Horror Story are filled with words that reveal a raw, nasty, visceral edge. 

Vivien didn't just find her husband having sex with a young student; she found him "pile-driving" her. 

The Downs Syndrome girl who lives next door is described, disturbingly, by her own mother, Constance, as a "mongoloid." 

Here and in other instances, the caustic but descriptive words truly match the horrific visuals. And while censorious moral watch guards may complain about the overt lack of political correctness on display, the series is thus far living up ably to one of horror's most important ideals: to traumatize in both word and deed

Because in that very state of unsettled shock and discomfort we are vulnerable; able to be truly frightened.

Some of the stylish visual techniques in American Horror Story may seem off-putting to some too, a little bit like last decade's generally feeble PG-13 horrors. 

There's an awful lot of jump cuts and fracturing of space here, for instance, when suspense might be better generated through long takes.

But, considering this visual form from an opposite angle, the jittery, anxious composition of the program seems to work hand-in-glove with the show's theme. 

This is a series about an American horror story, after all, and one need only look at the national discourse to intuit that's exactly what we're living.  The economy's gone south, the political dialogue is mean and death-obsessed, with jokes about border fences electrocuting people, boasts about the application of the death penalty, and even applause for the uninsured dying.  When did we, as a people, become so mean?  And worse, so delighted in (and proud of...) our own meanness?

American Horror Story seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on this zeitgeist. 

The Harmon family is not about harmony, but the opposite: disharmony.  It is fractured (like the jump cuts themselves), lacking compassion, and unable to deal constructively with "the house" (America?), which seems to boast dirty laundry in every room and hidden skeletons inside every closet. 

Is American Horror Story hyperbolic in tone and form?  Absolutely, but one glance at the presidential debates will reveal the exact same quality in our "serious" discourse.  At worst, American Horror Story is guilty of reflecting back at us who we happen to be as a people at this particularly unpleasant juncture.  At best, it taps effectively into the culture to dramatize its macabre, twisted tale of  a house -- and a family -- that has taken a decidedly wrong turn.

Sexy and scary, violent and mean, American Horror Story is like Twin Peaks on steroids.  It's aggressively weird and authentically disturbing. 

I hope it lasts.


  1. Some interesting observations on American Horror Story, John, but I think that you are trying too hard to attribute the first two episodes of this series to a single sub-genre of horror. This was my mistake, because from the initial descriptions of the premise that I read before watching the pilot episode, I had assumed it would be a simple haunted house story; a worn-out sub-genre that I find rife with cliché. However, at least if the first two episodes are any indication, the ghosts of American Horror Story are mere catalysts for the real world horrors that the Harmon's will face in the future. This blending of supernatural, psychological and real-world horror give American Horror Story a unique sensibility that feels very contemporary, yet oddly retroactive as well.

    Horror films for the past decade have been bludgeoning us into near insensibility with their graphic depictions of violence. Historically, broadcast television, because of the severe restrictions placed on them by FCC regulations, has had to rely more on implied violence than cinematic horror. For this reason, horror television programs always felt somewhat passé and ineffectual. Now that television regulations have loosened up to the point that they are nearly as graphic as their cinematic counterparts, it must now rely on creative writing to generate fear and tension. American Horror Story, being on a cable network after 10pm, is able to stretch the limits of graphic violence, sexuality and langue even further. However, I find it refreshing - in a deeply disturbing way – that it is the implied or unknown aspects of the story that bring out the true terror of the show.

    Ultimately, what will keep me watching American Horror Story are not the visual visceral pleasures (of which there are many), but the perceptual progression of the mental fear and psychological anxieties that the characters face from both within and without.

  2. I obviously am writing with the luxury of seeing the show aire an entire first season and I am curious to see where the show goes for the 2nd season. I enjoyed the show immensely, however, I am not all that interested in following the daily drama of ghosts or being introduced to an entire new family. Which I find unlikely since Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton are hardly supporting players.

    I look forward to season 2, but with reservations.