Monday, 12 May 2014

5 Reasons Why You Have to Watch... American Horror Story (Season 1)

Let’s try something different – how about reviewing a whole series?

Wait, no actually that's a lie – I did a similar thing (kind of) for Luther a while ago, which you can read HERE. Anyway, I holed myself up the other weekend and sessioned the whole of the first season of American Horror Story.

Wait what? Don't you hate American series? Aren’t they usually always overlong and drawn out in your opinion?

Yes, yes - but hear me out! The first Season is worth watching for the following 5 reasons. Check them out below.

1) It’s Not Too Long

            Okay, let’s get this one out the way. I generally dislike long series. They require a huge time commitment to watch, the story often suffers from being overstretched, there is too much filler material, character arcs and motivations lose focus over such a prolonged amount of time, and so on… This is why I generally prefer watching British television series, as the majority of them know how to keep things succinct and don't outstay their welcome (the ones I tend to watch anyway). If anything, short series encourage repeat viewing, whereas lengthy slogs like Heroes and LOST, which I did end up watching all of, are something that I will likely never revisit.

            Having said all that, however… I can make an exception for American Horror Story (hereafter shortened to AHS).

            Why? Allow me to explain.

            Despite there being 12 (or sometimes 13) episodes per Season, AHS is conceptualised as an anthology series, meaning that each Season has a completely different story, characters and setting. For this reason, each series has been given a subtitle. The first, retroactively being named ‘Murder House’, is largely in a modern setting with the main story centred around a family that has just moved into a haunted house that has seen many of its previous residents (over the course of its history) die in horrific circumstances. The second Season is set in a mental institute in 1964 and is called ‘Asylum’; and the third Season ‘Coven’, concerns witches and voodoo in New Orleans. The recently announced fourth Season is set to take place in 1950’s Florida and is subtitled ‘Freak Show’.

            So already you get a fair bit of variety to keep things fresh. That's not the most interesting thing about the format, however. For me, the most intriguing (and perhaps brave) aspect of this, is the fact that several members of the cast appear across the various seasons playing different roles. So rather than an entirely new cast in each story, instead you have an interesting reshuffle of roles.

            It’s not only something that is interesting to me in regards to its execution (will the audience be able to readily identify with the same actor in an entirely different role so seamlessly?), but it also subconsciously alludes to the themes of recurrent haunting, trapped spirits and events perpetuating themselves – it’s a stroke of genius, really. It doesn't hurt either that the majority of the cast are fine actors – but we’ll get onto that later.

            I’ve only watched the first Season as of writing this article so I’ll let you know at a later date if the actors playing new roles going into Season 2 truly works or not.

2) It Has Great Production Values

            Okay, I’ll admit, this one can be a bit moot seeing as many TV series feature high production values these days, as there is so much money being thrown at TV now (especially in the US). But, as we all know, that does not necessarily a good series make.

            From a technical standpoint though, there is much to enjoy here. On hearing that AHS is from the makers of Glee (yes, really!) and aired on a cable TV channel called FX, you may just fear the worst. However, not only is the production on this show really good, but it turns out better looking and more atmospheric than many of the horror films currently out there. The cinematography, sets, music (which we’ll discuss later) and effects are all top notch – and there is a decent amount of violence, gore and creepy scares in each episode to keep horror fans happy.

            Although I noticed the editing is a bit over-stylised at points (what’s with the zooming in to punctuate certain words!) on the whole it is effective, helping to foster much of the mystery and intrigue that the main thrust of the story relies on, as flashbacks, scenes from different time periods and imagined and/or dream sequences are plentiful. But once again, more on that later.

            Anyway, point being: the production values are great and you won’t be disappointed in that regard.

3) The Music

            This is really an extension of the above but I think deserves a special mention of its own.
            Firstly, let’s talk about the main title sequence. It's brilliant - that unconventional and unnerving boom of the electronic score, the subtly disturbing imagery that just barely hints at the contents of the show, the bold and unique typeface used to display (full-screen no less) the cast names and the show title itself. It’s a great mix of old and new (the font evokes the feeling of classic 70s horror whilst the music is decidedly modern) and is effective at getting you into the mood for the show every time.

            After a bit of research, I found out that this title sequence had won a few awards (one of which was an Emmy) and was produced by a company called Prologue, that also created the titles for AMC’s The Walking Dead and David Fincher’s Se7en. There you go – a bit of trivia for you.

            Anyway back to the main point. The original score in Season 1 is decent, but what I really wanted to talk about is the licensed music. Of course there are the requisite ‘songs’ used throughout, but the real stroke of genius here was the producers’ somewhat ballsy decision to use scores from other horror films over certain scenes - even fairly recognisable ones at that. So you get scenes that utilise bits of the scores of Insidious, Psycho, Saw, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Kill Bill (yes, I know it’s not a horror but it made that Bernard Herrmann ‘whistling’ track Twisted Nerve very popular). all to undeniably great effect. Can you spot any more? I’m sure there are a few others included in there that I haven’t mentioned.

            On one hand you could class this as ‘stealing’ or at least a lazy leapfrogging on the back of existing classic scary movie moments, but the effect it has on the atmosphere of the show is undeniable. Besides, considering the vast amount of story elements/character/imagery homages to other films included in AHS, it kind of makes sense (as we’ll see in point 5).

4) The Cast

            The cast is in AHS is another of its strengths, with a good mixture of both familiar and new faces. Dylan McDermot and Connie Britton are dependable as the husband and wife, the strained relationship between them being the cause of much of the dramatic tension throughout the series. Taissa Farmiga (sister of Vera) is also decent, although her role as surly know-it-all teenager is a little bit stock. Elsewhere Evan Peters (the original ‘Todd’ in Kick-Ass, and soon to be one of the two on-screen incarnations of the Marvel character Quicksilver - who in a bizarre twist of fate, is also to be played in a different film by ‘Kick-Ass’ himself: Aaron Taylor-Johnson) does a good job of being a sympathetic monster despite being an occasionally messily written character.

            There are two secret weapons in the show, however. The first is Frances Conroy, playing the mysterious maid Moira that ‘comes with’ the house. She displays a stalwart dedication to her job but also allows moments of matronly tenderness to shine through.

 Credit should also be given to her alter-ego ‘Young Moira’, played by Alexandra Breckenridge who, although her appearances are brief, literally burns a hole in the screen every time as quite possibly the hottest maid in the history of forever. (Brief digression: for reasons not fully explained in the show, Moira appears to other women as the older prim and proper version, but to men as a young seductive temptress, hell bent on leading them astray.

 Anyway who cares – she’s smoking! Just look at her!)

            Ahem…. sorry, where was I?

            The other secret weapon is Jessica Lange as Constance Langdon, another case of a strangely sympathetic monster that, despite stealing silverware, attempting to poison people via cupcake or casually referring to her Downs Syndrome daughter as a ‘mongoloid’, manages to enrapture the audience with her merciless put-downs and iron will. As you learn during the course of the story, she has lost more than any human possible should be capable of handling and yet she continues to endure, constantly being a victim of the effects that the strange house has on other people without having succumbed to it herself.

            Constance commands a presence and is so magnetic that you can barely tear your eyes away, especially when she delivers a heartbreaking monologue about her painful history, delivered in that soft Southern twang of hers. I think the biggest hurdle of Season 2 may come from having her shift to an entirely different role, such is the strength of her Constance in Season 1. I guess that just remains to be seen.

            Elsewhere, there are also guest stars that pop up every now and then including Kate Mara (a crazy girlfriend), Zachary Quinto (as a delightfully bitchy one half of a gay couple) and Denis O’Hare (as a mysterious disfigured man with an agenda).

5) The Story

            Ok, so on one hand it’s all a bit of a mess. There are many different characters with different relationships, agendas and histories – and at times you may feel you need a diagram to keep track of who knows what, who is on whose side and who is related to whom. It’s occasionally a bit of a labyrinthine soap opera, but I guess that's the nature of keeping the human side of it grounded and interesting in terms of drama when you separate out all the supernatural aspects.

            What keeps things fresh and interesting structurally in AHS, is the preponderance of flashbacks, period piece vignettes, dream sequences and so on, that often play out on screen for us as the characters relate them to one another. It's the classic story-within-a-story that not only gradually reveals more of the mystery (and indeed history) of the cursed ‘Murder House’ and its former inhabitants, but also keeps the narrative fresh and exciting. These vignettes are sometime shot in a different style and tone - the 1940’s segment being one particular standout example.

            As for the story itself – without giving too much away – there are a ridiculous amount of ideas crammed in. Considering the history of the US is much shorter than ours, there is almost a mindboggling amount of American gothic and heavy homages from the back catalogue of American horror crammed in there. There are generous nods to The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Sixth Sense, The Amityville Horror, The Black Dahlia murder, The Others, Beetlejuice and many more. Storylines also involve school shootings, feral children, crazy doctors, murderous cultists, gimp suits, vengeful ghosts, home invasions… and that’s far from being an exhaustive list.

            AHS could have easily descended into a lazy ‘freak-of-the-week’ feature, but instead all these elements are woven into one big continuous story. Sure, it can be a mess at times, but a glorious one. Rather than being a show that simply cribs ideas from everywhere else, I think horror fans will recognise that the whole point of this show is to stir all these classic references and ideas into one beastly stew – and it that respect it comes out being rich and full of flavour. See how the ‘borrowed’ music scores mentioned in point 3 make sense in context now?

            In fact, there is so much going on, that by the close of the series, there are inevitably a few unanswered questions and unresolved story threads that are likely to lead to a tiny bit of frustration for some viewers. But I guess too much content is better than too little.

            So in conclusion, American Horror Story is a bit sprawling and messy at times, but is simply bursting at the seams with ideas. There is a dark humorous streak throughout (it doesn't take itself too seriously despite all the gruesome going-ons in the show), and if you can suspend your disbelief at the numerous wtf!? moments – see how you feel using the first episode as a test run – this is one hell of a fun show to watch, especially for horror fans.

            I’ll let you know how I get on with season 2.

7th May 2014

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