I missed out on 'American Horror Story' when it first aired on FX last year. A combination of mixed critical reactions to the premiere, and an overall wariness of investing in another series, led me to steer clear. Thankfully, I've now been given the chance to rectify that mistake, and after devouring these twelve deliciously macabre episodes, I've been pleasantly surprised. Filled with loving nods to horror classics, the show is a deviously entertaining exercise in supernatural thrills. Disturbing, wild, and kinky, the series is full of appropriately horrific scares and a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. While the tone skirts toward excess, the characters are surprisingly nuanced and the performances are all great. Visceral and psychological, this is smart, sexy horror at its best.
The season follows Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) as they attempt to reconcile their crumbling marriage by moving to L.A. with Violet (Taissa Farmiga), their teenage daughter. The family settles into an old mansion infamously known to locals as the "Murder House." Why? Well, because of all the murders. While the couple struggles to deal with their personal issues, the house's previous, seemingly deceased occupants continue to lurk in the shadows, threatening their safety and sanity. All the while, the Harmons' mysterious neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange), seems to hold all the answers, but she has an agenda all her own. With the forces of darkness descending on the family, the Harmons will have to survive the horrors of the house, or risk becoming another group of "permanent" residents.
Infidelity, fear, sex, and redemption all play a large role in the series' narrative, weaving a psychosexual tale of horror, murder, family, love, and insanity. The show has a rather unique tone that blends a macabre sense of humor with disturbing imagery, classic horror movie thrills, kinky sensuality, and strong characterizations. There is also a delightfully soapy quality to the whole affair, and while the show teeters toward going over-the-top, it always manages to stay somewhat grounded and emotionally resonant. With that said, the writers certainly don't hold back, and all twelve episodes are packed with deliriously crazy images and bizarre characters that are sure to frighten and entice even the most jaded horror fans. In other words, rubber S&M suits, dismembered corpses, and Frankenstein babies abound!
Taking a tried-and-true haunted house setup, the show goes on to develop its own unique spin on ghost story conventions, twisting the genre in new but still very familiar directions. In many ways a love letter to past horror classics, the show is packed with homages to previous genre staples. 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'The Exorcist,' 'Poltergeist,' the works of Alfred Hitchcock, 'The Shinning,' 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Eraserhead,' 'Frankenstein,' and even 'Beetlejuice' are all heavily referenced in the story and visuals. Come to think of it, there's actually an awful lot of 'Beetlejuice' here (never a bad thing), particularly toward the end.
The Harmon family is the central focus throughout the season, and Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and relative newcomer Taissa Farmiga all do a great job. As Ben, McDermott has to do some rather unsavory things, but the actor keeps the character multidimensional, and his struggle to overcome his weaker impulses is engaging to watch. Connie Britton is also fantastic, blending strength and pain into a fully believable character that forms the heart of the series. Farmiga's Violet immediately develops a liking toward the haunted house she finds herself in, and her relationship with Tate (Evan Peters), a particularly troubled teenager, becomes one of the season's most interesting subplots. Peters is a real standout as well, and he brings an appropriate amount of angst, ambiguity, and genuine darkness to his role. His storyline deals with some potentially controversial issues, and the writers do a surprisingly good job of handling it all with sensitivity and depth.
Of course, the real scene stealer here is Jessica Lange. In her Emmy winning role as Constance, the actress is a true force to be reckoned with. Cruel and manipulative, the character has a heart as black as night -- and yet, it still beats, leading to a few rare instances of vulnerability and compassion. Lange handles all of the different facets of her character perfectly, relishing her villainous excess while demonstrating just the right amount of restraint and emotional complexity.
The "Murder House" itself is also a genuine character in its own right, and the series does a great job of fleshing out the mansion's horrific backstory. Each episode begins with a flashback to past residents' experiences, gradually forming a rich history oozing with blood and tragedy. The mansion collects broken souls like it's a personal hobby, piling its basement with pain and suffering. It's not all doom and gloom, however, and in a fun twist, it's revealed that there are some benefits to living in a haunted house. While the mansion is overwrought with a palpable darkness, that darkness can be used to one's benefit as well, leading to some clever reversals throughout the season.
While the series is called 'American Horror Story,' it could have easily been renamed 'L.A. Horror Story.' The City of Angels plays a sizeable role in the show's narrative, and setting the story in Los Angeles actually bolsters the story's deeper themes. After all, where else could such a tragic assemblage of wounded, pathetic, psychologically scarred individuals congregate? The ensemble -- dead and alive -- is packed with lost souls and psychopaths, all aching to be healed or yearning to torment. The concept of broken dreams and discarded promises plays heavily into the season's thematic backbone, and the Hollywood setting works perfectly to evoke the facade of wide-open opportunities and fresh new beginnings.
The pilot episode features a disorienting explosion of style, immediately establishing the show's dark and uncomfortable tone. Jump cuts, zooms, Dutch angles, and aggressive music cues all help to engender a classic horror movie aesthetic that goes out of its way to unsettle the audience. Transitions between scenes are quick and jarring, keeping the viewer on their toes with a fast, unhinging pace that constantly forces the audience to question what's real. While this aggressive editing style does mellow out as the season goes on, the series continues to offer splashes of stylistic excess that heighten the fear and paranoia of its characters (the surreal climax of episode 11 is particularly memorable). Flashback scenes also feature specific visual looks that all hearken back to the cinematic style of their particular time periods (the 40s have a certain diffuse glow, for instance). As foreboding as the visuals can be, there are also some subtle bits of self-referential humor as well, including a few overbearing music cues that are immediately undercut by mundane reveals.
Most shows that begin steeped in mystery tend to disappoint once the curtain is pulled away, but 'American Horror Story' actually bucks convention in this regard. The pilot so effectively sets up an air of spooky intrigue that I was worried the writers' eventual answers would be either too vague or poorly developed to live up to their strong potential. After all, part of the show's initial allure rests with the mystery of the house, and if that dark ambiguity is elaborated on, the series runs the risk of losing its sense of dread. Thankfully, that's not really the case here, and once the show further develops its own rich mythology, the series actually improves. As the ghosts and house become less mysterious, they actually become more interesting. The undead aren't just frightening ciphers, they're actual characters with complicated motivations, conflicts, and emotional issues just like the living.
As successful as the season is, there are a few minor issues here and there. While the show does a great job at establishing certain rules within its ghost mythology, there are some slight inconsistencies. Of course, given the inherent fluidity of supernatural storytelling, these small discrepancies could all be explained pretty easily (if the writers wanted to). Outside of these rather nitpicky criticisms, there are some story telling lulls as well. While I admire the actor, Dennis O'Hare's character never really worked for me, and his conclusion felt rushed and underdeveloped. Likewise, though Tate's arc becomes one of the show's most fascinating, it oddly peters out toward the end. After developing the character so well, the writers mostly skim over his story in the finale, and his wrap-up scene with Ben is a little unconvincing. While the season does an otherwise good job of telling a self-contained story, this aspect left me a bit unsatisfied. Also, though this is the last we'll see of these particular characters (season two will have a completely new story), there's still room for more development, and a part of me would actually like to see another season examine them further. With that said, the show's sinister, open-ended conclusion is well done.
Creepy, disturbing, sexy, and occasionally outrageous, 'American Horror Story' is a devilishly entertaining series. The characters are surprisingly complex, fueling a multi-layered ghost story about sin, lust, violence, forgiveness, and unspeakable darkness. The self-contained story reaches a reasonably satisfying conclusion, and while there are a few lulls and inconsistencies, the series' strengths far outweigh its flaws. A love letter to American horror cinema, the show is rife with references to the past while still carving an identity all its own. Not just a source of empty thrills, the series really has a strong psychological center that examines some thought provoking ideas and themes. The Harmons' story may be over, but season two premieres on October 17th, promising a brand new tale full of even more horror and excess. The asylum setting looks like a lot of fun, but I have to admit, I think I'll miss Rubberman.
Also, since I've already said it twice… 'Beetlejuice!'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox brings 'American Horror Story: The Complete First Season' to Blu-ray in a 3-disc set packaged in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. All twelve episodes are spread over three BD-50 discs. After some skippable trailers the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A coded.
The show is provided with a series of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though a bit uneven, 'American Horror Story' has an effectively dark and gritty quality.
One of the few contemporary series still shot on 35mm, the source is in great shape. Natural grain is present throughout, but does waver in consistency from scene to scene depending on lighting conditions and other factors (dark sequences tend to be the grainiest). A few shots do exhibit a slightly compressed quality with some noise mixed in as well. Detail is good, revealing all of the creepy little nooks and crannies of the infamous "Murder House." Facial features and background textures are also nicely resolved, and while never exactly sharp, the image carries a pleasing sense of clarity and depth. Colors are on the dull side, keeping in line with the show's sinister aesthetic. Contrast levels can be a bit low, and black levels are a little inconsistent. The series features a lot of scenes set in dark, shadowy environments, and while the majority of the presentation is solid, a few sequences are a hair muddy.
The cinematography does a great job of engendering an eerie, dark atmosphere, and while the transfer can be a bit rough around the edges, the video is solid.
The series is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. The show's incredibly disturbing opening theme is a real highlight, but outside of a few isolated moments, these tracks are surprisingly restrained.
Speech is well prioritized and fairly clean, but dialogue does have a slightly thin quality (for a contemporary release). The main title theme is an exceptionally moody piece of horror in its own right, and features some hair raising dissonant effects and tones. The show's soundstage has a decent sense of space, but the majority of the presentation is front-loaded and subdued. Music and key effects (like flies swarming) do hit the surrounds, but for the most part, notable rear activity is sparse. Directionality across the front soundstage is also relatively muted, but there is appropriate separation when called for (a door knock off to the side, for instance). The show is full of classic horror movie music cues designed to make you jump from your seat, and thankfully dynamic range is wide, giving appropriate weight to subtle and aggressive moments. The score also has a nice low-end rumble, and all of the show's grisly effects work (gushing blood, stabbings, gunshots) come through with gruesome fidelity.
For a series filled with such dark and spooky content, I actually expected a bit more immersion in the sound design. Still, the show does have its moments, and while not as enveloping as I expected, the effects and music do bolster the frightening atmosphere.
Fox has included a decent set of supplements, including a single commentary and some featurettes. All of the extras are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitles.
'American Horror Story' is a smart, sexy, occasionally outrageous, and deviously entertaining series that successfully brings horror to the small screen. With a great cast and multifaceted characters, the series weaves a surprisingly emotional story full of creepy thrills and memorable images. The video and audio are both solid, and while a bit slim, the extras are decent. It's potentially disturbing and occasionally risqué content won't be for everyone, but fans of horror and addictive, entertaining TV should definitely check this out. Recommended.