In part because it involves people linked with The New Normal and The Voice, the second season of American Horror Story, subtitled Asylum, is automatically scarier than the first one. Co-creator Ryan Murphy, the Gleeful man behind the garish laughs of New Normal, has enlisted Voice coach Adam Levine as one of his horror-show victims. Just watching the stubbly singer-scarecrow feign sex with his character's new bride (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) in the first few minutes of the premiere was effectively unnerving.
And, of course, that's not even the shudderiest stuff Murphy and fellow creator Brad Falchuk have presented. Set primarily in a 1960s Massachusetts hospital-prison for the criminally cuckoo, AHS: Asylum is an Exorcist/Silence of the Lambs/Rob Zombie-style mash-up of horror clichés. But remember: Clichés are clichés in part because they work, time and again. Bloody Face, the series' foremost monster, wears a mask made of the skin of a victim; some believe his true identity is Kit Walker, an alien-probed sap played by AHS alum Evan Peters. Peters appeared in a different role last season, as did other returning actors such as Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, and Sarah Paulson. (Connie Britton, bless her dang heart, escaped AHS only to confront the scary sprite Hayden Panettiere on Nashville.) Lange provides Asylum with some of its rare subtlety as Sister Jude, a sadistic nun who could have been a ridiculous figure were it not for the Emmy winner's undercurrent of shaded sensuality.
As with nearly all of Murphy's productions, there's an emphasis on the fears associated with homosexuality: the anxiety about either coming out or (in the case of the '60s lesbian journalist played by Paulson) being found out; and the fear-fueled homophobia unleashed by Sister Jude and Quinto's psychiatrist Dr. Thredson, who disapproves of electroshock therapy to ''cure homosexuality'' but does subscribe to ''behavior modification'' for gay patients. AHS: Asylum is a riot of themes and subplots religion as a repressive force; a mad scientist (James Cromwell) conducting human experiments; a supernatural serial killer who wreaks havoc over decades. Does it add up to a coherent whole? Impossible to say so far. Asylum is, in its opening episodes, more energetic and impishly funny than its predecessor. And the series makes good use of period music, particularly in the second episode, which employs the gorgeous ballad ''Wishin' and Hopin','' a sly choice sung by the late, gay Dusty Springfield accompanying a scene with Paulson's love (Clea DuVall).
But Asylum also suffers from the sort of OCD storytelling that characterizes some of Murphy's work. It is as though leaping rapidly from one scene to another will distract us from realizing we've seen these fright-night setups many times before. Here's hoping Asylum's heebie-jeebies become less frantic and more fraught with convincing psychological rigor before Lange & Co. get spirited away to the dreaded Camp Campiness. B