Written by Chad Derdowski
The mash-up is all the rage these days, isn’t it? With books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies topping the charts and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter being adapted for the big screen, it was only a matter of time before someone had the good sense to combine The Shining with Peyton Place and come up with the torrid, tawdry, and occasionally even terrifying American Horror Story. Buoyed by a fantastic cast and compelling storyline, AHS pushed the envelope of television for 12 episodes while combining elements of daytime soap operas and Marilyn Manson videos to create a combination of creativity and cliché that was impossible to ignore.
The story centers around the Harmon family, who have recently relocated from their native Boston to a restored mansion in Los Angeles in the hopes of repairing their shattered family. Ben (Dylan McDermott), a psychiatrist, had an affair after his wife Vivian (Connie Britton) had a miscarriage. Their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is your typical depressed teenage girl who struggles to fit in. One wonders what kind of horror a haunted house could possibly hope to inflict on a family that is already as damaged as the Harmons, but as it turns out, this house has quite a bit of its own history and not a bit of it is good. Add in a nosy next-door neighbor with her own ties to the house and a few other assorted weirdoes (not to mention the increasing cast of ghosts who get introduced over the course of the season as the history of the house is revealed) and you’ve got a show unlike any other I have seen.
First things first: the cast is fantastic and everything you’ve heard about Jessica Lange’s performance is absolutely true. She is at the top of her game here and any member of the cast who shares a scene with her is forced to step up their game. While the show itself tends to shift tone and focus repeatedly throughout the season, the consistently strong performances from nearly everyone involved keep an occasionally rudderless ship sailing smoothly. The series itself runs the gamut of horror, alternating from atmospheric and cerebral to depraved and exploitative. It is at times quite touching only to shift gears as it dabbles with humor – some intentional, some not. When it works, this variety plays into the uniquely “American” aspect of the show suggested by the title; when it doesn’t work, it’s just sort of jarring and disjointed, leaving you scratching your head and wondering whether they wanted you to laugh or if it’s just kind of corny. Good or bad, I certainly didn’t find it a struggle to watch the entire series.
I wasn’t quite sure at first though. A faux-Nine Inch Nails opening theme combined with repetitive images of pigs heads and fetuses in glass jars, old-timey family photos with cracked frames and a shadowy basement shot through a grainy filter left me yawning, wondering if I was still in 1994. Which is not to say that these images aren’t inherently scary; we all know that they are. And we know because we’ve seen them ad nauseam in more horror movies and music videos than I care to recall. In fact, American Horror Story borrows quite liberally from many other films that fall into the horror genre. And much like the shifts in tone I mentioned earlier, when it works, we get a brilliant homage to a particularly macabre aspect of Americana. When it doesn’t, you just roll your eyes and cringe. And again, while I probably sound like I’m complaining, I wasn’t about to quit watching either. And let’s be perfectly honest here: sometimes it’s more enjoyable when a supposedly scary scene ends up being goofy, isn’t it?
Despite my criticisms, American Horror Story is an incredibly watchable and well-crafted show. A large part of this is due to the previously mentioned acting chops of a talented cast but it is the slow revelation of the dark history of the house that kept me coming back for more. Since I’ve accused the show of using a few clichés, I might as well join in the fun and use one of my own. The story is like an onion, with new layers revealed as each previous one is peeled away. It can be both shocking as well as predictable, but it is always interesting. Earlier, I compared AHS to a daytime soap opera. As a longtime fan of Days of Our Lives, I assure you that the comparison was not meant as an insult. Each of the former inhabitants of the Harmon family’s new home come with their own tales of love, lust, betrayal, revenge and redemption. These stories tend to mirror each other in both theme and imagery and it makes for some pretty fun television as the stories unfold.
Another aspect of the series I enjoyed was the focus on the “American”. Without giving too much away, we see touches of the country’s current economic state and the pressures it can put on a family. We get a bit of Old Hollywood and the shattered dreams of would-be starlets and up-and-comers and we even get a taste of more recent tragedies that dominate today’s headlines involving misspent youth and violent teenagers. It’s not terribly heavy-handed, nor is it particularly challenging, but it’s there and is a much appreciated layer that balances the show as it walks a tightrope, threatening to fall into the chasm below tobecome little more than a banal and hackneyed gore fest. (Thank you, Thesaurus.com, for providing me with some much needed synonyms for cliché.)
In the end, I will not proclaim American Horror Story to be great nor will I call it “a modern classic” or anything of the sort. But I will assure you that it’s a damn good show and despite all my nitpicking, I found it to be entertaining from start to finish. It’s good to see horror on television and as well as something that attempts to cater to a variety of tastes within the genre. There’s a lot of great atmosphere and mood and plenty of three-dimensional characters and engaging plots, but there are also a lot of scenes that simply jump out and slap you in the face, leaving you rubbing your jaw as you ponder how the hell it got past television censors. For every one of my complaints or criticisms, I’ve got just as many things to praise and I’d definitely recommend that you check it out. American Horror Story is far from perfect, but it’s a lot of fun.
The 12 episodes are split up on three 50GB dual layer Bluray discs and presented in 1080p resolution with the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio intact, which means that all of those pickled baby fetuses can be viewed with stunning clarity. For a show that puts so much emphasis on lighting and background detail, this makes the Blu-ray a must-have for fans. Obviously, much of the sound quality depends on your home-theater system, but if you have a decent setup, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 will have you jumping at the creaks and groans of the old house. And really, even if you don’t have a great setup, you’ll probably be jumping anyway.
There are a few extras as well, but none of them are really worth mentioning – the usual assortment of cast interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff accompanied by a piece on the creation of the opening sequence. There’s also commentary from co-creator Ryan Murphy on the pilot episode, which is probably worth your time though.