Is there anything about American Horror Story that doesn’t scream, “I’m a cult television show!” Its cast of highly respectable thespians gives some of the strangest, blandest, and campiest performances of their careers. It overloads viewers with mysteries, only half of which are explained in full. Much like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s Nip/Tuck, nearly every socio-sexual taboo is exploited, cloaked beneath layers of blatant horror cinema influences. Since the series will follow a story-per-season format, this initial dipping into the inkwell of lunacy stands on its own as a melodramatic spider web. It’s creepy. It’s kooky. The only thing missing is kabuki. The Harmon family (snap snap).
Horror isn’t usually a genre rewarded by hi-def representation, as grittiness is the favored aesthetic. That’s not the case here. As seen in the special features and mentioned in Ryan Murphy’s commentary, the show’s set dressing and wardrobe are meticulously organized, creating a rich, dark visual splendor where the myriad details all deserve a second look. Similar compliments go to the ever-present music and sound design, which range from subtly disturbing to wildly disturbing, coming from all audible angles. It’s not often I feel strongly about the manner in which I watch a TV show, but I’m wholly recommending Blu-ray here.
For those unfamiliar with the show, or the shameful few who dropped out early on, a summary could take an hour without getting through all the spoilers. Ben (Dylan “DylMott” McDermott) and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) are dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage and Ben’s extra-marital relationship with college student Hayden (Kate Mara), having moved cross-country with daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) into a big ass haunted house. The Montgomery House is named after the abortion doctor (Matt Ross) whose guiltless experimenting began much of the otherworldly activity progressing between these walls. Seemingly stuck in a time warp, the Harmons’ neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange), has a vested interest in the Harmons and their house, and she has a daughter of her own, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), whose physical handicaps don’t hinder her ability to see the ghosts populating the house and predict people’s deaths.
Tate (Evan Peters), initially Ben’s tortured psychology patient, soon becomes Violet’s sorta-boyfriend (their relationship truly modern and drowning in violent teenage sorrow). Moira, the housekeeper, appears to the men of the house as a sexy young vixen (Alexandra Breckenridge), and as an aged spinster (Frances Conroy) to everyone else, creating much masturbatory confusion. Former homeowners include Burn-Face Larry (Denis O’Hare), a creepy widower with an eye for Constance, and lovers Chad (Zachery Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears), a squabbling couple with a violent streak. And for legitimacy’s coup de grace, Mena Suvari plays Black Dahlia victim Elizabeth Short, and Sal Mineo’s death is also depicted for some inexplicable reason. These are far from the only oddball tactics causing massive head scratching.
Evil twins. Babies in jars. Weird attic creatures. Sentient leather dominatrix suits. If there’s an example of tastelessness American Horror Story hasn’t gloriously shoehorned in yet, it’s bound to happen next season. The show pays homage to everything from Rosemary’s Baby (raw brains!) to the murders of Richard Speck. The Columbine shootings are mimicked. Eric Stonestreet plays a patient with a fear of a Candyman-like urban legend. A guy gets his dick bitten off. I believe all the bases are covered.
Though you’ll spend the entire season screaming, “Why haven’t you left that fucking house yet?” the writers do a decent job of keeping the story reined in to its magnificent central location, peppering the house’s history with enough wacky characters and events to make up for some of the questionable character work done by these actors.
Quinto and O’Hare are committed and convincing, and Lange’s Emmy win was most deserved for a role that seemed custom-fit for her. But the rest of the cast are vastly inconsistent. McDermott, whose acting face deserves its own column, and Britton, far-flung from her reputable Friday Night Lights work, act in every shared scene as if they’d just met and were given the lines seconds before shooting. Along with Peters, they give certain scenes over-the-top Broadway energy when it isn’t needed, and occasionally fail to properly match their emotions to their spoken words. I was extremely put off at first, but then these random abominations became something of an addiction, baiting me to anticipate McDermott’s next move. I won’t get into the ridiculous 180 degrees turn that Mara puts forth with her portrayal of Hayden, because I would begin to punch things uncontrollably.
Luckily, this set’s extras don’t include a cast-heavy Inside the Actor’s Studio. Instead, the bonus features focus largely on story and setting. Murphy’s commentary, sadly available only for the pilot, is dense with information covering the design of the house, scrapped ideas, inspirations, casting, and much more. Episodes further into the season could have used this amount of dissecting, but I guess a little mystery never killed anybody.
“Behind the Fright” is a making-of feature that packs as much into nearly thirty minutes as the commentary did, just with the beauty of visuals. It spends a fair amount of time on set decoration and the prop department, as well as visual effects. Everybody from the cast and crew gives their opinions on the plot and mysteries. Some of the larger stunts are broken down for viewers. The whole thing is really a great watch.
“The Murder House: Presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood” is a fun extended take on the location tours featured in the show. “Overture to Horror” is a ten-minute look at both the visuals and music for the beautiful clue-heavy opening title sequence. “Out of the Shadows” focuses on all of the deceased minor characters, none of which will I mention.
It’s a series I anticipated and loved for none of the reasons I expected. Revisiting these episodes after knowing the ending proved there was just as much gristle as meat to chew on, but a relatively satisfying conclusion makes up for this. Anyone moving to L.A. soon? I think I know a place…
Distributor:20th Century Fox
Starring:Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Evan Peters
Directed by:Ryan Murphy, David Semel, Bradley Buecker
Written by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Jennifer Salt, James Wong