The Telefile

American Horror Story: Freaky or Funny?

by Ethan Alter October 6, 2011 6:00 am
<i>American Horror Story:</i> Freaky or Funny?

Glee is no longer the only horror show that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are foisting on the American viewing public. Last night, the duo premiered their latest series, American Horror Story, the tale of a screwed-up family that moves across the country for a fresh start in Los Angeles, only to pick the exact wrong house to call home. It's clear that Murphy and Falchuk have done their homework for their first foray into out-and-out horror; the pilot referenced everything from The Haunting to The Shining to virtually every single David Lynch head-trip (up to and including Inland Empire). And like all of their collaborations, the show is a mess, but it's a really intriguing one, with just enough promising (and genuinely scary) material to balance out the more ridiculous, unintentionally hilarious stuff. In fact, if Murphy ever decides to stop playing everything to the rafters and look up the word "subtlety" in the dictionary, this could become a really great show. Either way, we'll be sticking with American Horror Story for the duration of its run, if only to see just how terrible it might get... are we talking Season 2 of Glee/Season 5 of Nip/Tuck bad? In the meantime, here are our picks for the freakiest and funniest things about the premiere:

Freaky: The House
Kudos to the show's crew for creating such a creepy, unsettling abode where it feels like anything can happen and probably will. From the dark, dank basement with its blind passages and hidden chambers to the steep wooden staircase to the macabre artwork adorning the walls, this multi-story Victorian crib is, so far at least, a more memorable character than any of the flesh-and-blood folks onscreen. We were especially unnerved by the way strange sights have a habit of popping up in the frame, like the bloodied kid that briefly stands behind psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) while he's consulting a patient in his study/office. That scene had us looking over our shoulder all night to make sure there wasn't some ghost just hanging out there.

Funny: Ryan Murphy's Down Syndrome Hang-Up
Let's be absolutely clear: we weren't laughing at the character of Adelaide, whose sole function in life appears to be warning anyone that goes into the house that they're going to die in there, or with the actress (Jamie Brewer) that played her. We were just kind of bemused that Murphy managed to work his fascination with the condition into yet another series, after previously featuring Down syndrome-afflicted characters on Nip/Tuck and Glee. If it's entirely in the service of advocacy and tolerance, then that's admirable, but to be it honest, it's starting to feel like a gimmick. (Actually, we suspect that Adelaide's presence here is a reference to the great Danish horror series, The Kingdom, directed by Lars Von Trier. If you haven't seen that engrossing, incredibly entertaining combination of ER and Rosemary's Baby, go directly to Netflix. Just don't rent the dire American remake Kingdom Hospital by mistake.)

Freaky: Vivien and Ben's Marriage
Like the most effective horror tales, American Horror Story has a strong emotional and dramatic hook that makes the scary stuff resonate. In this case, that hook is the fractured relationship between Vivien (Connie Britton, who is terrific, especially when delivering overripe lines like "And you buried your sorrow in some 21-year-old's pussy" while maintaining a straight face) and Ben (McDermott, trying too hard), who are trying to repair a marriage that soured when he slept with one of his students. Instead of acting as a place of refuge and healing, the house becomes a battleground that exploits their weaknesses and plays on their own private fears. We loved the way that central metaphor and their relationship was established here and hope that it continues to be effectively explored going forward.

Funny: Dylan McDermott's Naked Butt Walks
You can tell you're on cable when the lead actor drops trou repeatedly, once while pleasuring himself before bursting into sobs upon reaching climax. Really, Ryan Murphy? Nobody needs to see McDermott's O-face.

Freaky: Moira the Maid
We loved the reveal that Vivien and Ben each perceive their new housekeeper Moira entirely differently. In her eyes, she's an elderly crone in a severe black uniform (played by Francis Conroy). In his eyes, she's a hot young thing (played Alexandra Breckenridge) done up in one of those Naughty Maid get-ups you find at your local Halloween pop-up store. Again, beyond its scare factor, this switcheroo effectively speaks to fractured state of their marriage.

Funny: Any Scene at Violet's High School
We already know from Glee that Murphy and Falchuk aren't exactly experts at capturing the realities of high school. Even so, the whole storyline involving the bully that tormented the Harmon's teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) was ludicrous, particularly that scene where she pretended that she was a drug dealer and invited her nemesis to her house to hook her up with some grade-A cocaine. If the bully was dumb enough to actually fell for that blatant lie, she deserved the violent pranking that she received.

Freaky: Larry Harvey
We couldn't have been the only viewers experiencing flashbacks to The Shining during that scene where burn victim Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare) talks about setting his wife and kids on fire while smiling a creepy smile. All that was missing was Larry telling Ben that he "corrected" his family members after they disobeyed him. Man, we may need to pull out our DVD of The Shining again.

Funny: The Rubber S&M Suit
The image of a negligee-clad Britton being ravished by an anonymous person in a bondage outfit was provocative and eye-catching in the show's ads, but decidedly less so in the show itself. Honestly, the whole awkward encounter came off like an outtake from the basement scene in Pulp Fiction.

Freaky and Funny: Jessica Lange
Because David Lynch mainstay Grace Zabriskie was apparently unavailable, the Oscar-winning Lange took over her usual part as the creepy next-door neighbor instead. She's a hoot in the role of the aging Southern belle Constance, spitting out lines like "I wasn't about to have my green pasture flashed 70 feet high for every man, woman and child to see," with the right amount of campy relish. But she's also formidable enough for us to believe her when she warns Moira, "Don't make me kill you again." We'll be good, Jessica, we swear.

Play the American Horror Story drinking game.

Would a better title for this show have been People Who Probably Deserve to Be Murdered By Ghosts? Vlogger Sean Crespo ponders the horrors of real estate in this video:

What are people saying about your favorite shows and stars right now? Find out with Talk Without Pity, the social media site for real TV fans. See Tweets and Facebook comments in real time and add your own -- all without leaving TWoP. Join the conversation now!




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