Thursday, 13 October 2011

Schlocktober Reviews: American Horror Story

Hey, who says Schlocktober reviews have to be about horror movies anyways?

A barely audible “I do” emerges from the back of the room*

Yeah, well sit down and shut up fuckwad, cause it’s my site and my time, so I can waste it on anything I want to, mkay? And this week we have American Horror Story, a show that on paper really shouldn’t work but somehow does.  It’s by the creators of Nip/Tuck  a show I only watched one episode of, went “meh” and never watched it again, and one of the producers of Glee, which to paraphrase my cousin I’m not interested in because I’m neither a homosexual male nor a fourteen year old girl. So when I first heard about the show and heard who was involved I was somewhat dreading it actually. Horror shows that aren’t anthologies tend to suck very hard, very quickly. (I don’t count shows like Buffy or Angel, since they’re more drama-action with supernatural stuff thrown in.) Also, pure horror shows seem to be few and far between with horror being mostly relegated to novels and movies.  Needless to say, I was a little hesitant to say the least about getting into the show, and I was only interested because the poster had a gimp suit in it and I thought if nothing else it would be good for a laugh.

I was wrong. I don’t say that very often so enjoy it while it’s there. The show is an absolute freakfest of the macabre, with some well shot scare scenes and a cast that are all excellent for what they do.  The first five minutes alone is worth seeing just as an example of how a horror medium should start that’s both quick and gets the point across. (Take note Friday the 13th remake.) Back in 1978 twin boys go into a haunted house, and are unperturbed by a local girl’s warning. ( “We got bats!”) and then proceed to wreck some shit up inside the creepy house. Until they get to the basement and we get the best draw in for a horror show. Nobody is safe, not even kids.  

We then get the opening credits, or as I like to call it, disjunction function. Cue genuinely creepy 19th century photos blistering and burning up, warping the faces of the children in the pictures. Cue various unidentifiable body parts in jars. Cue distorted, atonal music. Cue half-seen quick cuts to scenes we’re really better off not seeing. It’s like if a paranoid schizophrenic tried to make a YouTube video of all of the things he dreams about at night. Needless to say it makes that creepy video from The Ring look like something you’d show to your kids. (Okay maybe not so much to North American kids. Japan, maybe.)
Cut to present day, where the Harmon family is moving from Boston to L.A. in the hopes that it’ll help bring them all together after a miscarriage and an affair. The dad Ben is played by Dylan McDermott, and you’re starting to get Déjà vu that’s okay since he was also in a similar premise in the movie The Messengers. That movie’s such a cliché, forgettable modern horror movie that I can honestly say I don’t remember watching it. However, McDermott in this show is playing an actual character rather than clichéd horror parent #546. Imagine a combination of Californication’s Hank Moody and Nathan Fillion in his usual persona. He’s also a psychiatrist working from home. The mom is Vivienne played by Connie Brittons who I can’t really judge from other things since she was in a bunch of shows I hear were good but I never got around to watching (24, Friday Night Lights).  She’s stressed out, tired looking and generally looks like someone’s who’s had a lot of shit thrown at her over the past year and is just trying to make it one painful day at a time.  She also takes up doing some redesigning of the house, including peeling away the previous tenants’ wallpaper to find Goya-esque paintings underneath. Oh yes and the previous tenants? A guy couple who apparently decided that murder-suicide would be better than living in the L.A. valley. Can’t say I blame them, really.
The daughter is Violet, played by newcomer Tarissa Famiga and who is actually still a teenager. It might not seem like much, but that’s freaking huge in TV shows. Violet’s a freak who doesn’t fit in, smokes on school grounds, gets into fights with vapid teenage alpha bitches, and cuts herself. Despite it all, I kind of like her. Like the rest of the family she’s damaged, but you still feel somewhat sympathetic for her.
Throughout the first episode we get a montage of creepy characters who know more about the house than the rest of the family, but choose to keep certain details to themselves. We also get Frances Conroy playing the house caretaker Moira, but only kind of. I say kind of since she only appears as an old lady to everyone except Ben, who sees her as a sultry young sex kitten played by a different actress.
As for the plot of the show? Well, I can’t really say since it’s mostly plotless introductions. Story hooks in a way. The usual horror stuff starts to happen where weird hallucinatory images abound. Probably one of the more disturbing scenes in my opinion is Ben sleepwalking downstairs, lighting a fire and placing his hand near it. When Vivienne finds him she tries to wake him up, but he just looks off into the distance and asks “Am I in a dream?” The show goes to commercial and the next scene is of Vivienne during the daytime. Was it real or a dream or a hallucination? The audience doesn’t get to find out, and somehow that’s just somewhat freaky.  We also get a gimp suit jump scare in an attic, which is a sentence I never thought I’d ever actually have to write in my life. The show has some atmosphere, and it’s all done with content and lighting, without that stupid grey camera filter that most horror movies have nowadays.

Another awesome thing to watch out for is a former owner of the house who’s horribly burned and played by Denis O’Hare. You might remember him as the millennia old Russell Edginton from the Third Season of True Blood and who was probably the best part of that season. He’s subdued in this role, despite the burn prosthetics, and despite him telling a horrible story about what he did to his family but we get the sense that like everyone else he knows more than he’s letting on.

Okay, there’s a lot of stuff that’s easy to predict, such as the true nature of one of Ben’s patients or the fact that one of the characters is actually dead. But it’s the actors that sell it. Nobody’s winking at the camera and whatever camp that is thrown in is always attached to some squick. The main problem of the show is more so a danger for future episodes. The scares and freaky scenes come out almost every five minutes, and with a show like this that means there’s a lot of them. While that’s a draw in for the pilot, it also means that if the show continues on then things might start getting either overly predictable and dull, or so over to the top that the show itself becomes a pure narm fest as the show’s producers try to continually outdo themselves. It’s a very tricky, very fine line that has to be walked here and unfortunately both the producers other efforts have shown they’re as able to walk it as a DIW caught by the cops.

It’s somewhat of a staple for horror shows that the good ones always end quickly. The few that didn’t completely suck  can count on one hand, including Twin Peakes and Southern Gothic both of which only lasted less than two seasons. And there’s a good reason for that since familiarity is often the real killer in horror shows. As long as American Horror Story is only one or two seasons long it’ll be well regareded and might even achieve classic or cult status. Time’ll tell with this one.

Rating: A-. It’s a very stylish take on a traditional horror premise and legitimately creepy. There’s the real danger of going too far with this show, but it’s a very awesome opening. Also I’m taking some points off for a naked shot of Dylan McDermott’s ass and a later masturbation scene with him as the star wanker. Once again, I never thought I’d have to write that ever in my life.

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