September 6, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “American Horror Story: Cult”



We find ourselves in boom times for killer clowns.  They’re the main vehicles for terror in the new installment of FX’s Ryan Murphy anthology AMERICAN HORROR STORY, dubbed CULT (including a cameo from Freak Show‘s Twisty), and one of the granddaddies of the genre, Stephen King’s Pennywise, arrives on big screens later this week in the movie adaptation of It.  In the case of Cult, they’re likely also a nod to contemporary times:  has America ever been more surrounded by menacing buffoons?

There’s plenty of time for Cult to become as baroque and campy as American Horror Story typically does, but in the early going, it has a different feel than previous chapters.  Without the presence of a grand dame figure like those played by Jessica Lange across several seasons or the Lady Gaga character in Hotel, Cult is comparatively youthful, almost American Horror Story: The Next Generation.  Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, promoted from their previous supporting roles, are now the leads.  More notable, though, is that Cult attempts on some level to engage with real life, which potentially will make its scares cut much closer to the bone.  Paulson plays Ally, co-owner with her wife Ivy (Ryan Murphy newcomer Alison Pill) of a trendy Michigan restaurant (this being American Horror Story, it’s actually a “butchery”), but driven to madness by the election victory of Donald Trump, with the secret shame that she’s one of the people who gave him his margin of state victory by voting for Jill Stein.  Ally has given in to her phobias, which include those killer clowns, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you, and evil has come into her life in the form of Kai (Peters), a hatemonger engorged by the fury and fear stoked by the presidential election, and his sister Winter (Billie Lourd).

The opening hour, written by Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk, and directed by Murphy veteran Bradley Buecker, has a tighter tone than the series often provides.  Paulson, as one would expect, is pitch-perfect even as she’s going completely out of her mind (whether hallucination or Kai-led assault, Ally’s experience in a clown-ridden supermarket is a doozy), and Pill is a solid addition to the ensemble.  Peters’s role gives him license to go over the top, but his performance conveys the anger and charisma behind Kai’s grandstanding.  Lourd brings along a few too many reminders of Murphy’s disastrous Scream Queens, but Winter’s part in all this isn’t yet clear.

Unlike Hotel‘s exercise in style or Roanake‘s meta-bloodbath, Cult‘s start suggests that it may try to tell a coherent story, and even make a satiric point here and there about where our present politics have put us.  (When terrorized by those clowns in the supermarket, Ally defends herself by throwing bottles of rose.)  There isn’t much to be said for the state of our union, but providing some effective focus to pop culture would at least be something.


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."