An American family – Mom, Dad and moody teenager – moves into a house. The house was bought at a bargain price. Creepy neighbours turn up unannounced at every possible opportunity. Weird stuff starts to happen. Oh, look, there’s someone in a gimp suit!
Welcome to the dark world of American Horror Story. Take all the ingredients from the Haunted House movie genre, throw in some adult content and some teenage angst for maximum appeal, hire an ageing female star of the 1980s, now too old to get any decent work in Hollywood, give it a good shake and put it on FX – one of the ‘interesting’ US television networks – et voila, you have a hit series.
The concept of AHS is certainly interesting: the haunted house story that we all know from classic horror movies like Poltergeist, Amityville Horror and The Shining, is developed into an entire 12 episode series, allowing for a lot more to happen than the usual moving in, things going bump in the night, freaking out, moving out that the genre rules usually allow. This is why I had a lot of hopes for AHS, and for the first half of the series, I was not disappointed.
In the first few episodes we are introduced to some really great characters, the first and foremost being Jessica Lange as the interfering neighbour – a failed actress and single mother, with a Down syndrome daughter and younger lover. Afflicted by the curse of being Too Old For Hollywood, Lange hasn’t really done that much in recent years. For all of us who grew up in the 80s, it is a wonderful treat to be able to see her in a regular role.
Younger audiences are also kept happy with two really great teenage leads. There is newcomer Taissa Farmiga brilliantly cast as Violet – for once, a teenage character who does actually seem constantly in some form of emotional pain. Farmiga’s Violet, hopefully thanks to the talent of the make-up artist, looks ill, anaemic and dead-eyed. What better love interest for her then than Evan Peters in the role of Tate, a boy who is not only dead, but also clearly a Nirvana fan (check out his stripy top and cardigan from episode 1) as well as being the cold-blooded perpetrator of a Columbine-style mass murder. The two make the perfect teenage emo couple, something that almost seems to have been created with the sole purpose of being the subject of endless posts on Tumblr by the show’s younger fans.
In this respect, AHS follows the footsteps of shows as disparate as The Simpsons, Frasier and The O.C. by providing multiple layers of meaning and embedded cultural references aimed at different age groups and types of viewer. There are references to music, for instance where Tate says to Violet: ‘Do you have any Kurt Cobain?’ (although is anyone aware of Kurt Cobain’s solo music? Wouldn’t ‘do you have any Nirvana’ have made more sense?). There’s a nod to Freud in a nice little speech, improbably uttered by the Moira, the maid, on the origins of the word “hysteria”. Even John Keats gets a mention in the form of a quote of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This is the kind of TV that aims at making every viewer feel included, and in my case it almost succeeded.
What doesn’t work that well for me, is the casting of the two main adult leads who play Violet’s parents. Maybe it’s because Dylan McDermott as Ben, the father, bears more than a slight resemblance to Clive Owen – only his facial expression ranges from Owen-style wooden to even more wooden. Maybe it’s because Connie Britton as ‘Mom’ Vivien is a character who, no matter how hard I try, I cannot warm to (have you seen Britton’s perma-smug face?). Or, arguably, it could equally be the intended effect of a script that is manipulating me so astutely that I am siding with the bad guys instead.
The thing is, I am not entirely sure as to who the bad guys actually are. Are they the ghosts of the dead, forever trapped within the confines of house? It seems unfair, as they are all, to various degrees, themselves victims of violent crimes. What about their living accomplices, such as Constance and even Violet, the latter who, in order save her relationship with Tate, betrays her own mother? And what exactly are they all trying to achieve?
As of episode 9, it is still not very clear. I am confused: everybody is having sex with everybody, so surely, things can’t be that bad. There’s lesbian action, necrophilia (the dead don’t look dead, but they are) and of course, the killer in the gimp suit. It caters for all tastes. But wait: they have now mentioned Anti-Christ, and we know Vivien is pregnant with twins! Suddenly, I think I know where this is going. Will both babies be named Damien?
There are still three episodes to go (for us watching on FX in the UK) so there is still scope for improvement. The show has already been renewed for a second season, which will have entirely different characters – although some will be played by the same actors from season 1, and will be set in a different but equally haunted location. This sounds very promising, with no prospect of the current story being dragged on and on, lose its viewers and eventually be cancelled after two seasons like ‘V’.
As a huge fan of the haunted house genre (I have affectionately renamed my house Amityville), I am intrigued to see what new elements can be brought to season 2. Personally, I think AHS needs less, rather than more: less sex, less gloss and fewer characters – less of the gimps, more of the ghouls.
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