October 6, 2011

THE SKED REVIEW: “American Horror Story”


AMERICAN HORROR STORY – Wednesdays 10PM on FX – Potential DVR Alert
The first inkling of just how deranged AMERICAN HORROR STORY is going to be comes with one of the early “normal” scenes.  The location isn’t the haunted house, so we’re away from the girl with Down’s Syndrome who tells people they’re going to die in there, the brutally murdered identical twins, the body parts and fetuses preserved in jars… I could go on. But at this point in the story, we’re at the private high school where teen Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera, who played the younger version of her sister in the recent Higher Ground) is merely smoking a cigarette where it’s prohibited, and the local mean girls don’t approve (one of their grandmas died of lung cancer).  Yet even this scene is staged with such intense, hyped-up rage that you might think a massacre is about to take place.  The message is clear:  Abandon restraint, all ye who enter here.

“Restraint” isn’t a word associated with Ryan Murphy and his co-creator Brian Falchuk in any case (Murphy also directed the pilot)–whatever their strengths and failures, both Nip/Tuck and Glee have been all-in propositions, veering wildly from serious drama to wild perversity often in the course of a single episode.  Letting Murphy and Falchuk loose in the horror area is like granting them a license to kill, mutilate, and generally rampage.  American Horror Story, with its oddly emblematic title (“American” as opposed to what, exactly?  A Portuguese horror story?) embraces all the leeway the genre provides; watching it, you can almost feel Murphy and Falchuk exulting: Where has this genre been all my life?
On the most basic level, American Horror Story has a classic set-up:  the very troubled Harmon family moves from Boston to Los Angeles, where they buy a house with a history of terrible events.  (The gay couple who owned the house previously died in a murder/suicide, and that’s just the beginning.)  Vivien (Connie Britton) had suffered an awful late-term miscarriage and hasn’t been, psychologically or physically, the same since; after that, her psychiatrist husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) cheated on her with a 21-year old, Vivien walked in on them, and while the couple has remained together, they’re completely estranged.  Violet is an outcast who hates LA and cuts herself, but she finds her life livened up when she meets Tate (Evan Peters), one of Ben’s patients, who has elaborate fantasies about wreaking Columbine-type vengeance on his schoolmates and is also suicidal.  Plus there’s the next-door neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange), mother of the Down’s Syndrome woman who “has a way” of getting into the house even when all the doors are locked; Constance has some as-yet unclear involvement with whatever terrors the house contains.
There are many influences here, but the predominant one seems to be The Shining.  Like the novel and especially the Kubrick film, there’s the general idea of a family’s psychosexual dysfunction being absorbed and amplified by the evil spirits of their dwelling (just as Jack Torrance saw a beautiful, naked woman in place of a rotting corpse, when Ben looks at the elderly housemaid Moira, he doesn’t see Frances Conroy, but rather the young, very sexual Alexandra Breckinridge).  More specifically, there’s the suggestion that Ben will be coaxed by the house into trying to murder his family, which is apparently what happened to previous owner Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare).
Luckily for American Horror Story, the genre doesn’t require too much in the way of logic, which is typically a weak point for Murphy and his team.  On the other hand, it’s very unclear how they’re going to sustain this premise beyond a few episodes–after a certain point, there are only so many repellent, terrifying incidents the family can undergo before they’ll seem like complete idiots for staying in the house.  For now, though, the show is quite compelling in its crazed way (it certainly isn’t dull).  It’s also graced by some terrific acting.  Even though Vivien is hardly comparable to Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights in terms of depth or fullness, Britton brings the same kind of commitment and intelligence to the role, while McDermott, Farmiga, O’Hare, Peters, Conroy and especially Lange offer effective creepiness.
It remains to be seen whether American Horror Story will offer anything beyond superficial scares, let alone a coherent story or meaningful theme.  But the horror genre is, if nothing else, a flexible one, and cheap thrills can be satisfying too, if they’re well done.  So far, the show is off to a darkly entertaining start.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."