The marketing campaign that F/X rolled out for their new series, American Horror Story succeeded in piquing my interest. A haunted house story told as a weekly series from the guys who created Nip/Tuck and Glee on a network that loves to push the boundaries of what the censors will allow? Ummmm yes please.
The series kicked off with its premiere episode last night and it was……interesting. The story starts off with the main character, which is the house. The year is 1978 and the house is in shambles, and it just looks creepy. Throw a little girl in the front yard staring absently at the house, telling two bratty bat-wielding red-headed twin boys that they’re going to “die in there” and you’ve got a nice creepy start to a creepy show. The boys go poking around where they shouldn’t and meet an end that isn’t very happy. All of this takes place before the fractured, image heavy opening credit sequence.
The story then switches to present day with Vivien (Connie Britton), Ben (Dylan McDermott) and their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Vivien is still reeling from a wretched miscarriage in which she had to deliver the stillborn baby, Ben is a psychiatrist who deals with his grief by having an affair with a 21-year-old student of his but gets caught in the act by Vivien, and Violet is an angst ridden teenager who’s into cutting herself.
Ben’s affair doesn’t kill the marriage but it severely damages it. The family decides to start fresh and they leave their humble abode in Boston for the sunny skies of Los Angeles. After touring the creepy house, and being told that its previous owners died in the house via murder/suicide, they decide that it’s just the place for them to lick their collective family wounds. Because nothing says “family bonding” like a creepy house where several people have died.
From here things start to get strange. The little girl from the beginning is all grown up now and feels free to let herself in and roam around the house. Her mother, the intrusive neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange) does pretty much the same thing, much to Vivien’s displeasure. It’s almost like the house calls to them or something. We also get introduced to Moira. Moria is the maid that apparently comes with the house. She’s worked for several of the previous owners and knows more about the house then she lets on. To everyone but Ben she appears as an older lady, and somewhat stern if you ask me. She’s a little creepy, but that quality fits right in with the house. However to Ben, she appears as a young, wily temptress complete with maid outfit, thigh-highs and garter belt. She tempts him sexually giving him suggestive looks, not to mention letting him view her in….we’ll just say suggestive situations, All of which spell doom for Ben considering he’s had an affair previously. It’s not a far reach to think he’d give into temptation again. Dennis O’Hare also pops up as a severely burned former owner who says the house drove him to murdering his wife and children. His exchange with Ben is unnerving and leads us to believe there is more to him that what he lets one. His creepy smile after Ben leaves is proof of that.
Ben begins sleepwalking and with that comes a fascination with fire. He works out of his home office and currently we only see him working with one patient, named Tate. Tate is a disenchanted teen-age boy who fantasizes about freeing his classmates from the horrors of the mortal life. He’s kind of messed up. He also befriends Violet and the two compare their self-inflicted scars and bond as they hatch a plan to put the fear of God into the girl at Violet’s new school who is terrorizing her. Typical teen-age stuff you know.
Vivien starts work on the house, stripping wallpaper to uncover a rather scary looking mural underneath it. As far as I’m concerned stripping wallpaper is a horror unto itself but I digress. She also ventures up into the attic where she finds some rather interesting apparel. There’s a lovely bondage suit hanging up there in a fabulous shade of black patent leather, which Ben tosses in the trash. However, he (?? is it really him??) shows up at their bedroom door wearing it, which leads to a rather awkward frisk-fest between him and Vivien. It obviously affects her because she looks a little shell-shocked afterwards. This is where safe-words come into play folks. I’m just sayin’…
The cast overall is fine. I won’t say stellar but I won’t say crappy either. The standout in this particular episode is Jessica Lange. That’s really no surprise considering she’s won two Oscars. She pulls off her character with an airy indifference, until she goes all mother hen on Vivien after a situation with her special needs daughter. She can turn on a dime, and this scene, I think, is a precursor to what her character will be like.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk definitely have skills when crafting together complex stories and characters. It still blows my mind to think that Glee came from the same minds as Nip/Tuck. Throw this one into the mix as well and you’ve got a pretty disparate CV. Their writing is stellar and it comes through once again in this pilot episode.
This premier throws so many things at the viewer so fast it’s hard to digest it all in one sitting. I crawled into bed last night and watched this right before I crashed out for the night. Probably not the best right-before-sleep viewing choice, but I’m also the gal who falls asleep to Jaws and Aliens on a regular basis. After it ended I sat there thinking “What was that?!” I hesitate to say I liked it or disliked it at this point because I think it’s going to take a couple of episodes to get a firm grasp on the story.
The fact that it’s a haunted house story really is secondary. Sure, it’s first and foremost in the pilot, but that’s just laying the ground work. Underneath the haunted house surface is a story about a broken family working through tragedy, trust issues, betrayal, loss, and neglect. One would think that abandoning the house would be the only option. Unfortunately for them it’s not. Abandoning the house would also seem like abandoning any hopes of keeping their family together. Personally, I’d haul ass out of there, but that’s just me.
The imagery used in the opening segment was a means to serve up the chills and make the viewer uncomfortable. The rest of the episode wasn’t so much creepy as it was mildly shocking. I was more shocked that this is being shown on a cable network and not one of the cable movie channels. But then again, it is F/X. If Nip/Tuck proved anything, it’s that this network gets away with a lot.
How much of an impact the haunted side of the story makes on the series as a whole remains to be seen. You can’t have a show called American Horror Story and not have any scares. I don’t see this as a scares-for-scares-sake vehicle. Murphy and Falchuk are much too crafty for that. I see the scares lending themselves to the overall arch instead. At least that’s what I hope for.
Will this show last past its initial thirteen episodes? It’s hard to say. This looks to be a show that’s an acquired taste and may not resonate with a lot of viewers. If the story behind the characters is what drives this show, then I think that’s what people will cling to. It will also need to answer questions fast and not string viewers along. Apparently we’re supposed to get some answers about half way through the season so we’ll have to see where it all goes. If you decide to catch this one, watch through the closing credits because it’s peppered with quick shots of different scenes. Looks to be upcoming stuff but it went by so quickly I couldn’t catch it all.
I’m curious to see where this leads so I’ll be back next week for another dose of crazy.
Tags: American Horror Story, bat shit crazy television, Bran Falchuk, Connie Britton, Dennis O'Hare, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Ryan Murphy, Taissa Farmiga