"Dominique, nique, nique s'en allait tout simplement routier pauvre et chantant…"
Craziness upon craziness. I think that might be the best way to describe 'American Horror Story: Asylum.' Actually, scratch that. Craziness upon craziness upon batshit insanity might be more appropriate. While the show's first season already offered viewers a cornucopia of terrifying psychosis, this batch of episodes turns the series' crazy knob all the way up to eleven. With a brand new story and characters, the creators leave the murder house behind for a dark and grimy mental hospital -- and as episode after episode of unhinged horror and demented dread unfolds, one is left questioning if it's the inmates or the writers who are really insane. A rule breaking and outlandish piece of spine tingling television, there may indeed be a method here, but that method is madness.
Primarily set during the 1960s, the series focuses on Briarcliff manor, an insane asylum run by the Catholic Church. Led by the stern and intimidating Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), the asylum is home to a menagerie of unstable inmates and sinister secrets. When an unassuming young man, Kit Walker (Evan Peters), is accused of being the infamous serial killer known as Bloody Face, he is brought to the institution for evaluation, but is the seemingly good-natured man really the murderer? Meanwhile, an intrepid reporter named Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) attempts to expose Briarcliff's unsavory practices, but soon becomes forcefully committed herself. As menacing supernatural happenings begin to occur, the characters try to maintain their sanity and fight for justice in the face of unspeakable evils.
While that summary might offer a solid approximation of how the season starts, there really is no cohesive way to describe how truly insane the story quickly becomes. Just as we start to get our bearings on certain plot threads or wrap our minds around specific paranormal happenings, the writers immediately introduce a new twist or concept, piling insanely devious ideas on top of one another. Jam-packed with dark creativity, the season is practically bursting with potentially competing elements that cover just about the full spectrum of the horror genre. Seriously, by the time all is said and done, the show manages to include serial killers, aliens, demonic possessions, angels, mutant experiments, a deadly Santa, Nazis and, perhaps most terrifying of all… Adam Levine!
To be honest, some of these disparate pieces simply should not work in tandem, and the speed at which they are thrown together can be overwhelming -- but somehow this narrative insanity actually ends up being a large part of why the show works as well as it does. There are so many strange spinning plates in the air at one time that it becomes irresistibly alluring. In fact, as the bizarreness escalates, the show becomes more and more enjoyable, reaching a head in a particularly memorable song and dance sequence (yes, you read that right) featured in episode 10 which just might be my favorite scene from any show last season.
The writers break many conventional rules related to traditional television scripting, but inexplicably manage to keep the season's main arcs relatively organized, weaving a disturbing and scary story that deals with cyclical madness. Thought provoking themes entrenched in guilt, torture, corruption, ambition, revenge, religion, and science are all intermingled, and the narrative takes full advantage of its 60s setting to examine provocative social issues involving race, sexuality, and mental health in surprisingly sensitive ways. Well, sensitive for a show that features a murderer masked in human flesh.
In an especially inspired decision, many of the same actors from season one have been recast as completely different characters here. Villains have now become heroes and those who once had minor parts now play integral roles. Once again, Jessica Lange is the real highlight of the ensemble (though Lily Rabe also deserves special recognition and the whole troupe is quite stellar), and the actress turns in an impressive performance that equals her award winning work in season one. Sister Jude is a complicated character layered in contradictions, and Lange examines her conflicting cruelty, lust, and sense of justice perfectly. In an ironic twist, the tables are eventually turned on the woman, and the actress' transformation is harrowing. Throughout various stages in the story we go from hating her to rooting for her, and this same paradoxical investment is present in almost all the characters, revealing a world where enemies become friends, saviors become tormentors, and good and bad are mostly a matter of perspective. Evil, however, is pretty clear cut, and the show never holds back.
The medium of television has steadily grown more and more cinematic over the last twenty years, and 'American Horror Story' has the distinction of being one of the most impressively stylistic shows on the small screen. The production design, costumes, sets and musical score are all impeccable (the repeated use of the French song "Dominique" is especially effective), fully playing up the inherent eeriness of the asylum setting, and the directors do a phenomenal job of creating a truly creepy aesthetic filled with distorted angles, quick cuts, POV shots, split screen, moody lighting, and swaying camera movements. Visual references to classic genre pictures riddle the season as well, and the creators use all of these influences to form a singular style -- one that's soaked in blood and sex, of course.
Overrun with enough insanity and disturbing imagination to sustain several shows, 'American Horror Story: Asylum' plays out like a hodgepodge of madness that somehow remains cohesive thanks to engaging characters and a surprisingly strong narrative backbone buried beneath all its random terror. Certain threads end up feeling a bit meaningless or rushed, and the series' final episodes take a few unexpected turns that might seem out of place for some viewers, but the show's dark tale about bonds formed through trauma, corrupted innocence, and the fine line between men and monsters, is potent, disturbing, outrageous, and horrifyingly entertaining. Season three will once again bring on an entirely new story, but the show's haunting ending ensures that the dirty, sinister halls of Briarcliff will linger on in viewers' nightmares, with that old, deceptively jaunty record playing on and on without ever skipping a beat…
"…Dominique, nique, nique s'en allait tout simplement routier pauvre et chantant…"
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox brings 'American Horror Story: Asylum' to Blu-ray in a 3-disc set packaged in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. All thirteen 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 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Stylish and visually impressive, the series has an appropriately moody and gritty aesthetic that looks especially creepy on Blu-ray.
Like season one, 'Asylum' was shot on 35mm film, and the source is in great shape. Natural grain is present throughout, but its appearance does change from shot to shot. On this note, dark scenes are particularly grainy, and though seemingly in line with the intended aesthetic, several shadowy sequences have a rather noisy look that can be distracting. Overall clarity is strong, highlighting all the gruesome effects and terrifying production design well, fully bringing the disturbing asylum to life. Saturation is deliberately drab, further reinforcing the unsettling atmosphere, but certain scenes offer specific splashes of color (usually red, as one might guess) and time periods and locations outside the usual 1960s asylum setting offer different color palettes and looks. Contrast remains steady with mostly deep blacks, though some dark shots can be tinged slightly blue.
Grimy and effectively horrifying, the show looks quite good on Blu-ray, easily besting its broadcast quality while readily showing off the filmmakers' inventive and terrifying cinematography.
The series is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. Offering a bit more atmosphere than the season one set did, these mixes provide a spooky and immersive experience.
Once again, the series' trademark opening theme is one of the real highlights here, and the creepy music is full of dissonant, scratchy effects that are spread eerily around the soundstage. Dialogue is relatively full and clean, but there can be a very slight thin, boxiness to high frequencies. The asylum location is brought to life with solid auditory texture, dispersing unsettling effects work and screams directionally with natural imaging and separation. The show's moody music also comes through with strong fidelity and range, though low frequencies aren't always as robust as one might expect.
The creepy design work complements the unnerving visuals very well, often making the show disturbing even if you keep your eyes closed.
Fox has included a relatively small but decent set of supplements, including some deleted scenes and featurettes (but we sadly get no commentaries). All of the extras are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitles.
'American Horror Story: Asylum' ramps up the outrageous madness of season one on all fronts. The writers weave another tale of provocative terror, creating a haunting, creative, insane, and always entertaining batch of episodes. The video transfer is strong, effectively conveying the show's impressively creepy style, and the audio mix is moody and unsettling in the all the right ways. Supplements aren't exactly robust, but the included featurettes are worthwhile. Fans of season one, and horror stories in general, should not hesitate to pick this up.