“The world is a horrible place,” said a character in the premiere of American Horror Story, and this new hour from Glee producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk did its best to prove that dismal sentiment true. Welcome to The Anti-Glee, or perhaps more like Gleeful Hell. There was sadism on the screen, and you may have felt a sadistic pleasure in watching.
American Horror Story is about a family and a house. The family is the Harmons (Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and their teen daughter, played by Taissa Farmiga). They buy a big, old house in Los Angeles that may be haunted and was definitely the site of previous murders. The family is troubled even before they move into Big Scary House: Britton’s Vivien caught McDermott’s Ben (a psychiatrist) boffing one of his students a while back and they’re still working through their trust issues, as well as the trauma of Vivien having recently birthed a stillborn child, described as “a brutal miscarriage.”
Unlike most scary TV shows (and movies), which rely upon the rhythm of a few quiet scenes followed by a boo! fright every 20 minutes or so, AHS is pretty much all-scare, all the time: a whole lotta screams, sex, jolts, mashed faces, psychotic behavior, and dead children. It’s a scare-‘em show attuned to Twitter rhythms.
On the basis of this and Nip/Tuck, it’s difficult to escape the idea that Murphy has a thing about women’s bodies: He and his collaborators find endless ways to distort, alter, or make them suffer. A maid played by Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) changes bodies with a younger, sexier version of herself (Alexandra Breckinridge). Daughter Violet is a cutter. Vivien had sex with a man in a rubber bondage suit whom she thinks is Ben but who probably isn’t, and tells him she loves him. In this show, everyone likes it rough. And depressing: “Wanna listen to Morrissey?” Violet asks Ben’s deeply troubled teen patient Tate (Evan Peters). “He hates everyone and everything.”
Jessica Lange eluded pain – thus far – as nosy next-door neighbor Constance. Indeed, she’s a malicious hoot, more colorful than the morose characters McDermott and Britton are compelled to play (Dermott with futile strenuousness; Britton with cunning ease). Constance uttered the pilot’s best, most baffling line, to the maid(s): “Don’t make me kill you again.” Denis O’Hare, working with half a face and a character with brain cancer, warned Ben (in the pilot’s lamest line), “Your family is in danger.”
AHS is a riotous mishmash of not merely the conventions of the horror genre, but also Charlie Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders (the producers made sure someone muttered, “Helter skelter”), Todd Browning’s Freaks, the Gothic romance, the serial-killer genre, TV shows ranging from Six Feet Underto Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and ’60s-’70s commercial art films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – the latter two Murphy has specifically cited as influences. Those films’ plots and themes collide in AHS: (troubled married couple, death of a child, explicit-for-the-time sex, a shattered dream narrative, spooky living quarters, babies as symbols of life, innocence, and life and innocence betrayed). But does mashing influences together make for something new?
The moral rot that crumbles beneath AHS is very much a theme in contemporary film horror. Rot is, however, unstable; it’s one thing to use it for sour jolts in a 90-minute R-rated film you see for screams ‘n’ giggles on a Saturday night. But whether you’ll want to tune in every Wednesday evening to see this family endure puzzlement and misery is your decision now, right?