You could argue that producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have already had a good stab at America’s ongoing horror story with Nip/Tuck, their gloriously trashy yet hugely enjoyable look at the rampant vanity, neuroses and hypocrisy of the US cosmetic surgery industry. With the (mis)adventures of messrs Troy and McNamara now over, this new show from the Glee duo takes a somewhat more conventional approach to the macabre.
Visually similar to the likes of ‘60s and ‘70s scarers Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen, but with a modern setting, at first glance American Horror Story, the tale of a family living in a possibly haunted new home, looks like a pretty standard fright-fest.
The first episode’s prologue opens with a spectacularly effective set-piece involving two mouthy teenage boys, a young girl with Down’s Syndrome warning them not to enter a dark old house and a predictably grisly encounter. With a kind of bargain-basement (but great value) Trent Reznor on board in the form of series theme composer, former fellow Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser, an immensely noisy industrial rock screech helps set the scene.
Opening credits roll and we’re introduced to the series’ protagonists, slick Boston psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), his wife, sometime cellist Vivien (Connie Britton) and their daughter Violet Taissa Farmiga. This family has moved to said spooky house many years later, after traumatic family events prompted them to up sticks to LA for a fresh start. They’ll be lucky, as any viewer could tell you.
So, American Horror Story begins with the seemingly pretty normal, though stressed out, Harmons settling into their bargain of a new house (or so they think). Ben has set up a counseling practice in the building, where he meets various strange people with even stranger problems, though that’s nothing compared to his neighbours.
The opening scene’s little girl is now an adult (though dresses and acts just like she did all those years ago), living next door with her mother Constance, played by Hollywood veteran Jessica Lange in her first regular TV role. The seemingly friendly Constance initially welcomes the family to the neighbourhood, though it’s apparent from her oddball behaviour that all is not quite what it seems.
Murphy and Falchuk are clearly fond of the notion that this new series will be the new Twin Peaks or American Gothic. Sure enough, this first episode ladles on the requisite weirdness with neighbour Constance a constant in her sense of subtle menace, former house owner and disfigured burns victim Larry (Denis O’Hare), a grim reminder of the house’s history, and seductive maid Moira (Frances Conroy), a sensual, bizarre creature of torment and titillation.
Our protagonists are believably normal with their concern at the strange circumstances they find themselves in as horror conventions pile up and the apple-pie American family ideal is further away than ever.
For all its conscious mixture of creepy behaviour, brazen, music video shock-cuts and camp support acting from a cast clearly loving this fairground ride of a show, though there’s an overall feeling of contrivance to proceedings.
The Shining-style hints at madness beneath the seemingly fine father-figure’s façade come thick and fast, though perhaps a little too thick and too fast, as that film’s strength was its slow-burn descent into haunted house hell, rather than the low-attention-span thrills we’re given immediately here. Jessica Lange is the show’s undeniable star, though her rickety theatrics might have been used better reigned in a little at first, rather than going for the throat straight away.
Still, for all its flaws, it’s well worth persevering with American Horror Story. What begins as willful cliché does develops into a nicely claustrophobic atmosphere over the course of multiple episodes, transporting the viewer into a completely self-contained universe.
As our heroes (and anti-heroes) are exposed to all kinds of physical, mental and even sexual threats (a mysterious gimp-suited figure makes regular sinister-if-ridiculous appearances), the all-encompassing feeling of unease sets in impressively. Standard scares become enjoyable punctuation to the queasy questioning of events and perception as crime and punishment are interwoven skillfully.
And those questions do build up. Why are the Harmons drawn to this house? And what is their fate? Will they join the victims they meet on their path or will they somehow be saved?
All these questions (or maybe not all yet, as a second season has already been commissioned by FX) will no doubt be answered in suitably stylish, savage style.
American Horror Story begins at 10pm tonight on FX.
Watch the trailer…
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