Yes, they’re watching my dignity shrivel away.
I’m getting old.
It’s not just the birthdays that add up. My stomach’s capacity for horror has become shamefully weak as I slowly progress from being a crabby teenager into a full-fledged crabby adult.
Scares usually fall into two categories: gore-related wincing, (like Boardwalk Empire’s scalping. YEOW!) and psycho-terror torture (like Stephen King adaptations or Hitchcock). Both type of scares seem to magnify in intensity as I grow biologically older, like the ripeness of cheese.
Which might be why American Horror Story is scary (and cheesy). But it isn’t the only reason why it creeps the hell out of me. It could just be that, quite possibly, it’s plain and simply good – enough to be rendered into a classic over the course of time.
Be warned… This is a somewhat long-ass review.
I didn’t want to do a pilot review for this show because I thought it was too good to be true. It was deranged and twisted, sweet and mysterious, funny and heartbreaking. I was blown away by its merciless portrayal of unlikable characters that still made you interested. And it was definitely adept at being eerie without much effort, violent without being gory (could be just my flimsy tolerance, though). My first opinion would’ve been that it was TV’s new amazing genre show that was deserving of its “Horror” label, but I wanted to see how things developed before finalizing my overall impression of the series. It’s a lot more complex than people realize. Yay. More for me!
A little background:
Firstly, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy are the brains behind this operation. Whaaaaat? It’s both impressive and worrying, because looking at the way Glee has been handled, AHS could very well go down the same crazy, meandering road of excellence and mediocrity, which is more of the latter, really.
If you’re into the horror scene, you’d instantly recognize the show’s little odes and homages to horror culture’s hall of fame; the Shining; the Others; the Strangers; Amityville Horror; Rosemary’s Baby; the Sixth Sense and a ton of others that make you proud of yourself for being able to point them out. It doesn’t come across as a rip off at all,because its execution is gloriously raw -sometimes literally- and upsetting, on a whole other level. Most importantly, it’s so American, and for the first time in a long while, it proves that star-spangled creepies can be done well without a dead contorting Asian chick in sight.
The bloody beating heart of the show is the house that the Harmon family is living in. It’s spacious, beautifully furnished, peaceful, and incredibly cheap. It’s pretty much its own character with its 1920s decor, covered-up devil wall murals and vinegar-polished wood-panelled floors, serving as the core setting to the ghastly happenings and drama that drives AHS. Riddled with plenty of deep, dark mysteries, it has the great intrigues of Lost in its early years. I’m afraid of that place.
The scenery doesn’t change up that often, which is stifling. Ironic, considering how freaking enormous the place is. Then again, it could be one of those devices that are purposely there to drive you completely padded-room-nuts. Maybe that’s the point.
With that said, I have no idea why Americans love huge houses with attics and basements and yards, especially with only 2 or 3 people living in it. If a bunch of intruders want to invade your space (like it went down in ep 2), you have 9 doors to lock and twice as many windows to seal. And no one can run that fast.
I said the same thing about Paranormal Activity (who leaves their bedroom door open at night?!) and there is no way I’d change my mind about living in an overly large space. I’d never sleep from thinking that things are lurking in my many little faraway, dank corners, corporeal entity or not. So if you’re like me, it’s already an effective tool in creating mental distress.
Big house, more ghoulies. Better for us then. So if you find an awesomely priced mansion on the market, run through the “Prior Tenants” list to see if they’re still alive. If not, and you saw them around just a minute ago, get the frak out. Live with your mom. Or your distant cousin.
Of course, not everyone has this kind of spatial paranoia, but AHS can unsettle you with its characters.
They’re weird, terrible, creepy, despicable; I could go on forever with the descriptors. Though you can pin any of them down to a TV archetype or stereotype, the layers easily go much deeper than that with a skilled writer’s hand in the mix. They act predictably at times, but it makes you ask why they still went and did it. By episode’s end, you leave your couch scratching your head about what happened, with just barely a hint of understanding of why it did. Such is the confusing, see-sawing world of AHS, because instability and randomness is so in-character for everyone. It’s troubling. Do we sympathize? No? But do they really belong in hell?
Here is how the ensemble is broken down: the Harmon family, the “neighbours”, and Ben’s random patients, either acting as a device to relay a message on the human condition or one that plays a key part in telling the story of one of the main characters.
They are unlikable. All of them. Even with Dylan McDermott’s shirt off, Alexandra Breckenridge’s peekaboo garters, or even Constance for that matter. I love Jessica Lange, but Constance is cray cray. She locks up her daughter in a claustrophobic room of mirrors for interrupting sexy time with a younger man, blasts the brains of her husband and the girl he’s raping, and bakes poisonous cupcakes with an age old recipe. If I lived with any of them for a week, I’d put a mile between me and the property and off myself.
Ben and Vivien are shitty parents. It’s not that they don’t realize that their daughter Violet is a self-mutilating, world-hating teenager. A lot of parents often miss out the fact that their children are cutters. The part that truly makes them shitty is that they don’t even care to know what’s going on in her life at all, and it’s hair-tearingly obvious. Their incredible level of self-absorption seems to be genetic, because while Ben and Viv are busy being sucked into their own individual black holes of woe, Violet doesn’t give a shit about anything – which makes her seem badass at first, but a jerk later on.
The house preys on each of their key flaws and magnifies them, driving each family member to extreme situations. And everyone loves extreme situations! Ben is weak with physical temptation, while Viv is obsessed with calling him on it. With the help of the even more dysfunctional family unit of neighbours, the Harmon family goes into meltdown.
You have Tate, Violet’s vent station, Moira, the young/old housekeeper temptress, the iconic Rubber Man, Larry Harvey, the man with the burned face, Adelaide, Constance’s trespassing daughter, and Constance herself, Mama Horror always finding ways to have her tendrils of influence up in the Harmons’ business. Call me sadistic, but it’s fun to see the unit collapse like a house of cards.
Can I just say that Jessica Lange is fabulous too? Because she is. Constance is menacing, sly, and most of all, a mother. The kind of mother who does anything to protect her children and all that she deems hers. (I have one of those.) Whoever writes her killer one-liners must have a gold-plated award resembling a large stick of butter with free-flapping ends of scotch tape on its front. When she speaks, she steals the scene. Obviously, I’m taken with her.
I can’t say much more about the other neighbourly characters without giving too much away, but they’re exemplary models of how gravely dismal and desperate people can get. Rock bottom is only scraping the surface. Imagine what you’ll find underneath.
If anything, the score of AHS is intense. There are spectacular symphonies of harp and drawn out cellos, and there’s the primal throb and drum that sends the anticipation straight to your throat. The shrill violins are in the right place, and the opening is killer. As a fan of both industrial music and triphop, hearing them blended together really tickles my funny parts. There’s the occasional licensed tune, which is usually from Violet’s playlist (think soft-spun grunge references), but most of the time, I find myself thinking, “Damn, they sure know how to compose a score.” In most shows, you’re riveted to the dialogue and the situations that the score goes unnoticed, but here, it adds so much to the scene that you can’t help but notice it. It’s just like how I felt about the Lost score, with the orchestral cover of Three Dog Night’s Shambala, and the emotional depth of There’s No Place Like Home. It goes beyond your standard “create the ambience” fare. Never distracting, but stands perfectly well on its own.
FX, please, please release an OST to this. Even better, publish an official mixtape and market it as “handpicked by Tate” and give us a dual-disc special.
The greatest thing about this show is that it doesn’t just tap on the supernatural to create fear. Horror doesn’t need to be this grotesque parade of outlandish facial disfigurement and backstory (but when it’s done, it works). It does borrow from the terrifying parts of human nature – the adulterous, murderous bits that just happen simply because shit happens. The first example is in the chilling, too-close-to-home beginning of Piggy, Piggy. The actors blew it out of the park in what was practically a reenactment of Columbine. Using that kind of material without glossing over the situation with unnecessary action or buildup and throwing it out in the open with such unnerving brutality is what makes it terrifying. We don’t even know why it took place, but it did. No changing that. Shit happens.
Another crazy brilliant move from the same episode was the resolution to Eric Stonestreet’s Derek. It could’ve been anti-climatic on first watch, but upon reviewing it, it was unexpected and pretty darn smart. To have that kind of anxiety, face your fears, have them all validated and proved true and not just in your head, is just awful. It’s even worse than being put through said anxiety.
While I pray that they don’t jump the desperation gun and burn out quickly, I love that they’re able to deftly walk the line of scary without regressing into desperate shock tactics or exploitative gore that teens and young adults soak up in cinemas these days. I don’t mind the psycho-sexual marketing the show pegs to its own shirt. The weirdness of it is just part of its charm. Plus, once in a while it cracks an inappropriate joke/reference to remind you that you shouldn’t take it so seriously like people are wont to do with the genre.
Personified, AHS is that somewhat dark and questionable loner kid minding her f88king business every week. When you get to know her, she’s “eclectic” and “quirky”. Sometimes she’s funny, but mostly she’s just twisted. She isn’t necessarily horny all the time, but when you do get her into the sheets, you have a lot of fun (especially with that gimp suit).
It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. It still suffers from continuity problems. At moments it focuses too much on its oddball strangeness that raises its camp value unnecessarily. As of late, the creators have taken some disappointingly obvious routes and reveals (rubber man, anyone?), teetering close to the edge of outright moronic. And like I said earlier, originality isn’t its strong point. In fact, it’s probably closer to Murphy and Falchuk’s love song to the genre, Jason Segel-style, if Jason Segel was a shaggy-haired pianoman with a taste for the macabre and A minor.
AHS definitely isn’t for everyone. It can be WTF for normal viewers, actually, unless you’ve grown up in an Addams Family special or have been completely desensitized to outrageous behaviour (by societal standards, at least). There’s masturbation, copulation, baby violence, rape, self-mutilation, and lots and lots of blood. Not something you want to watch with your parents, or any of your family for that matter. The show’s an enigma and it drives me crazy that I can’t figure it out completely until now. That’s good TV.
One of the most interesting things I feel is the enormous uncertainty about the future of AHS. It’s already been renewed for another season that may have more than the standard 13 episodes. It’d be a bittersweet move for them to jam the reset button and have a fresh setting/cast so that the American brand of horror can be salvaged/done justice – now with the famed haunted house concept, then maybe another revamp on another aspect of horror. If they’re going to keep the cast, it’s totally fine, but they’ll need to stop themselves from pulling a Josh Schwartz shark-jump before reaching a story climax.
Now if you don’t mind, I have a forum to trawl. For non-spoilerphobes who want a place that sorts out the AHS timeline, you may want to keep tabs on American Horror Story Timeline.