American Horror Story:
Be warned…it’s hard to avoid Spoilers with this! So you know!
I’m guessing, since you’re reading this, that it’s possible that you watch a great deal of horror movies, just as I do. If that’s so, then you know that after enough years it’s quite difficult to put a scare into yourself—and of course, we all like a good scare in the safety of the cinema or in the company of friends. So you find yourself putting on a DVD at two in the morning, surrounded by the sounds of an empty house settling itself for the night; and even then it can be hard to get that frisson.
There are still some fine fright movies being made, even in amongst the endlessly derivative ones; and yet, only rarely in (fairly) recent years can I remember seeing a movie that could disturb me not just once but on repeat viewings. Candyman was one of them. The other was a modern classic, where in fact the viewer saw next to nothing. That was The Others, the kind of subtle piece of theatre that I could even imagine H. P. Lovecraft approving of. This is a film that really gets under your skin and which simply doesn’t need to go down the often lazy blood and guts route. My father went to see it in the cinema shortly before he died. In fact, he didn’t know that he was going to a ghost story, as he didn’t like anything in the supernatural genre at all. He did have a bit of a thing for Nicole Kidman, though; and so in the small Scottish town of Ayr, one afternoon he found himself in a completely empty cinema watching a genuinely scary film. How I envied him for that chance happening, although he didn’t see it quite the same way.
But if there are only a few fright films that are consistently satisfying when it comes to ticking my boxes there is one theme—or perhaps component might be better—where, if it appears at all it has my freaked-out attention; and of course what freaks me out won’t freak you out and vice versa. For me it’s anything to do with spooky little children. (Which, come to think of it, brings us back to The Others once more.)
Children, in general, have always given me the creeps. Well, at least from when the sprogs are born until, maybe, twelve. I mean, what are they for? When they’re tiny you don’t know what to do. You sit there terrified that your relation is going to ask you to hold their little darling offspring and you just know that you’re going to drop it and break it or something. I don’t know which is worse, that or when they get older. Then you’re supposed to talk to them, but since you don’t know what to say you can find yourself addressing them as if they were adults. And that in turn gets you some odd looks from the other adults in the room. You can’t win. So I find even normal children unnerving. In fact I’m even breaking out in a sweat here just thinking about the whole complicated business. And when it comes to creepy little kids in movies…ah, forget it! There’s too many to count. Sure, there’s the obvious ones like Regan (The Exorcist) or Damien (no explanation needed), but there are also out-of-the blue what-the-fuck-was-that incidents like Kevin Bacon’s brat suddenly speaking with that bloody great deep voice in Stir of Echoes. They can scare the bejeesus out of you at any age, even when they’ve just emerged from the womb. Remember Zack Snyder’s heart-attack of a zombie baby in Dawn of the Dead? And don’t even get me started on Orphan or Case 39.
So it’s a tribute to the cast and crew of the first season of the FX series American Horror Story that I actually watched every episode. No, I didn’t find it conventionally scary but let’s be honest here, from the first scenes of the very first episode until the final shot of the last episode this is all about using kids to put the zap on your head. Yes, there’s a lot of other stuff in there but for me that was just filler. Don’t listen to anyone telling you that it is a good old fashioned wander through the quintessential haunted house. American Horror Story is about fear of childbirth, infancy, infanticide, abortion and unpleasant teenagers. Very unpleasant teenagers. I know what you’re thinking: are there any other kind? Well, one of these—Tate (Evan Peters)– has the miserable little shits beaten hands down.
Prisoners in a Windowless Cell.
The prologue to the pilot episode takes place in 1978 and has a couple of twin kids entering an apparently abandoned house, intent on smashing the place up in the mindless fashion for which children are known. If there is one thing creepier than two kids with baseball bats it is twin kids with baseball bats. And if you want to go creepier again it is twin redheaded kids with baseball bats. (Well, their hair looks kinda reddish and that’s good enough for me.) Thankfully they are quickly despatched by the demons that be, but the news just keeps on getting worse. They might have been bratty little munchkins when they were alive but then they go and have the added bad manners to still be haunting the joint years later when the Harmons move in.
Not that the Harmons are cut out to be the light entertainment of AHS. Vivien (Connie Britton) is barely able to put up with her husband, psychiatrist Ben (Dylan McDermott) after he had an affair with a young student. And to put the prize cap on it he did this as Vivien was still trying to come to terms with a miscarriage.
In fact, Ben is rather fascinating as an absolute case study in one man just continuously making life an ongoing misery for himself with every decision he makes. If you have anything like the car-crash of a life that I have you will find yourself absolutely inspired by Ben Harmon. Not an episode goes by but he doesn’t make you realise that your life could be so much worse. If things start to go well Ben is the man to fuck it up again: Wife eventually forgives you? No problem, you’ve got the student pregnant. Stay away from her? Nah, restart the affair. What can go wrong? Check to make sure she’s playing with a full deck? Where would be the fun in that? Make sure you’ve picked a complete nutcase.
And when she dies make sure that she dies in the vicinity of the house so that you have her haunting you into the bargain. For it has soon become obvious (though unexplained) to the viewer that anyone who dies in or in the near vicinity of the house remains there as a ghost. Thus when Ben and Vivien buy the (yes! Ridiculously cheap Los Angeles mansion! Take it!) they get a whole slew of companions and they don’t even realise that most of them are dead.
“The Dead can Hold a Grudge Better than most Scorpios.”
Take for example the maid Moira O’Hara (played by Francis Conroy and Alexandra Breckinridge). For some reason women see her as a stolid and dependable middle-aged woman whilst the stupider sex see a rampant little minx in stocking tops and suspenders. Ben—naturally—continues to make his life a living hell by actually having this man-trap around, knowing that he has a hard enough time keeping the Baldy Fella in his pants as it is! Still, I do like Moira’s unflappable attitude to disposing of corpses:
“I’ll get the shovel—you get the bleach.”
We also have their daughter Violet (Taissa Farniga) who takes up with one of Dad’s patients, the aforementioned Tate. Violet proves that she’s right up there with her mum when it comes to bad taste in men. Actually, she’s worse: as it happens, Tate is a mass murderer and—there’s no other way to put this—dead. As far as Violet is concerned you wouldn’t think it could get much worse than that. Well, not until he dresses in a bondage suit, has Vivien thinking he is Ben and impregnates her. AND it is on the same afternoon that she has made up with the husband. So in a rare medical miss-chance she is now carrying twins (bloody twins again!) by different fathers and of course, one of them just happens to be the Anti-Christ.
Moving through the many plot complexities (and sometimes even adding a little confusion) is the wonderful Jessica Lange as next door neighbour Constance Langdon– and she is in fine Southern Gothic mode. It’s hard to believe that three decades have sped past since Jessica showed Jack Nicholson how a kitchen table should be cleared in The Postman Always Rings Twice because whatever ‘it’ is, Jessica certainly still has it. And she can still out-act anybody around her as her various awards for this role go to show.
You really have to hand it to the writers. They just never let you get complacent. Just when you think that you have gotten things figured out along comes a whole new twist that you just didn’t see coming; and this is helped by the consistently fine acting from a genuine ensemble cast. And I haven’t yet even mentioned the two dead gay guys, trapped together in a loveless relationship for Eternity and thinking that they can make it better by stealing the ‘normal’ twin from Vivien and keeping it for themselves…and I won’t even tell you what they have planned for the little mite.
As I said, this theme of twisted dealings with infants runs right through American Horror Story. Indeed it is present right from the early history of the house when a drug-addicted doctor has been running an illegal abortion scheme on the side. And I don’t doubt that as the last four episodes bring this obsession to a conclusion that the titles are not a coincidence: ‘Spooky Little Girl’, ‘Smouldering Children’, ‘Birth’ and ‘Afterbirth’.
It may possibly reward a repeat view as there seemed to me to be quite a few little subtleties that I possibly didn’t pick up on the first time around. I’m thinking in particular of what seemed to be musical cues that didn’t appear to come to fruition until a few episodes down the line.
And there are quite a few plot points that I didn’t get. (Although I could have a stab at my own explanations.) I won’t go through them all but one in particular that puzzled me was why men see the maid as a sex-mad young woman. After all, we have seen in one of the show’s many flashbacks that she was sinned against: having fought off a rape she was then shot. She seems blameless and since she died in the house as a young woman why do the other women see her in middle-age?
I had assumed that this and other questions would be answered in Season Two, but instead it appears that this is a completely different story. In fact it was after I had seen this initially that the subtitle Murder House was added. Now it is described as an anthology show, so each season will in effect be a mini-season in itself. That’s my understanding, anyway.
Well, I’ll know shortly. I have to say that I’m looking forward to another round of American Horror Story. And if my Jessica is back for more, then all the better!
Created and Produced by: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.