Verdict: An fascinating mess
I’m not gonna lie, I spent the first few episodes of American Horror Story laughing at it, it’s campy, over the top, and occasionally wooden, and occasionally overwritten. Actually screw that it’s always over written. It doesn’t work as a horror piece per say, but more as a post-modern send up of horror films. Either that or Falchuk and Murphy, (Glee), are ripping off every horror movie ever in an attempt to be scary.
The plot of American Horror Story season 1, ‘Murder House‘ revolves around Dylan McDermott, (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Practice), bringing his breaking family into a new home in Los Angeles. It’s Gothic, it’s supernatural, it’s every horror riff or cliche or technique all thrown into a big kitchen sink, then thrown at the wall with the kitchen sink to see what sticks. There’s notes from everything from The Exorcist, to The Shining, to even something like Eyes Without a Face, and a litany of non-horror gothica like A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Blanche Dubois figure being filled here Jessica Lange in a fan favourite role amongst AHS fans. I don’t really understand what’s so different about her performance because EVERYBODY is just going 110% for everything, there’s so much overacting you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking you were watching some Greek tragedy like Antigone or The Bacchae put on by an amateur student theatre group. Seriously, every single performance in this show reminded me of the amps in This Is Spinal Tap that “go up to eleven”, pointlessly. If you want a much better iteration of this kind of role I’d recommend you Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, a much better iteration of this kind of post-modern referential horror film, from a rooted dramatist in Darren Aronofky, (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), one of my favourite filmmakers, and not, well, the makers of Glee. My favourite performance is actually from Zachary Quinto, (Star Trek, Margin Call), who’s clearly having the time of his life playing a stereotype of a raging queen. However, in the end that’s the problem, all the side characters have absolutely no depth, they are all caricatures of horror and drama, and actually comedy, cliches. That’s what I think Black Swan does better, it may be riffing on all these giallo movies like Suspiria, but the characters have depth, and you care about them and their struggles, it’s just aided by borrowing techniques from other films to enhance the drama.
It really does look like the makers of Glee went, “you know what, let’s make a really spooky horror film”, because it’s very stylish, it’s very interestingly shot, it’s very, um, interestingly edited (I hate the editing it gave me a migraine), but it’s all style, or at least it is at the beginning. it settles down to a degree in later episodes. There’s a little bit of thematic depth in the loss of a child, but it’s so poorly and heavy-handedly represented that it’s really just window dressing.
American Horror Story: Murder House is all style over substance, it’s all scenery chewing and scenery and histrionics and try-hard editing but that’s about it. However, that all being said, the more I watched it, the more I got involved. I slowly, actually became invested in one of the characters’ stories and that gave me a way in to the show. Lily Rabe as Nora Montgomery actually got me invested in her tragic story and I believed her beyond the level of caricature. Then I suddenly found myself wanting Tate and Violet to be OK, despite the fact they’re awfully written. Then I found myself enjoying the campness beyond a level of laughing at it, more just enjoying how full on it is. Maybe there’s an element of how one looks at a car crash as one passes but still, it’s camp, schlocky fun, and I for one have always been a fan of camp, schlocky, fun.