I’ve spent the last three days marathoning American Horror Story: Freak Show on Netflix, so I thought I might as well make the most of it. Believe it or not, I’ve actually done my best to AVOID spoilers in today’s post. The uninitiated can feel free to read away!
For those unacquainted with the series, American Horror Story takes a fairly unusual tack: Though described as an anthology series, it differs from shows like The Twilight Zone in that each season tells a self-contained story, rather than each episode. Much of the cast is made up of a common stable of actors who reappear from season to season, taking on different roles in each story. It’s kind of like the role-swapping in “Shadow Play,” a Twilight Zone episode I mentioned a few posts back – an actor who used to be a villain might appear in the next series as a hero, or a lead become a bit part, and vice versa.
Aside from the recurring players, the only thing connecting the disparate seasons is the broad requirement that, as the title implies, they must feature something that (a.) is scary, and (b.) takes place somewhere in the United States. Seasons vary in the location and time period of their settings, and each has a central topic on which it is focused (though tropes from other subgenres of horror sneak in). I’ve found the seasons seem to differ in quality, and since this is the year of lists, why not rank them to help fill our quota?
Bear in mind that, as always, these are merely my opinions. Your experience may vary.
4. “Murder House” (Season 1)
A haunted house seems like a logical place to start things off. This season follows a family that moves into a California mansion with a long and violent history. The family’s own history is none too happy, either: prior to the move, the mother has just had a miscarriage, and the father has been caught in an affair. Their teenage daughter is also experiencing depression.
Shortly after they move in, the family begins experiencing a variety of paranormal phenomena. The house abounds with spooky apparitions, and as the season progresses we discover that every spirit represents someone who has died in the house. In fact, death occurs with such frequency in this house that it gets cartoonish. People drop like flies, only to return as ghosts more or less immediately. It gets to the point where this morbid “revolving door” makes the show seem more like a dark comedy than a work of horror. This is another common trait across the seasons: as we spend thirteen hours getting acquainted with and learning the backstory behind the various “horrors”…they stop being scary. Familiarity kills fear. So, as the body count bloats and the halls fill with ghosts, the show starts to feel repetitive, boring, and even claustrophobic long before its first season ends.
Finally, “Murder House” introduced the series’ tendency to incorporate horror tropes beyond those suggested by a given season’s theme. In addition to ghosts, the tangled storyline of season 1 manages to work in the Black Dahlia murders, burn victims, the Columbine school shooting, and even a rapist in a “Pulp Fiction”-style gimp suit (who provides the DVD cover image). While it opens up creative possibilities, this willingness to “reach” for inspiration also runs the risk of diluting a season’s tone. And the producers would only stray further afield in the years to come.
3. “Freak Show” (Season 4)
Right off the bat, I’ll say that this entry has arguably the best setting so far. The “creepy carnival” offers so many cool cinematic possibilities, and they’re realized fairly well. We get knife-throwing, ventriloquist dummies, killer clowns, and, of course, the titular freaks. Like Todd Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, this season gives prominent exposure to real-life “freak” performers, including the world’s smallest woman and a torso-girl who moves around by walking on her hands. I was most impressed by Matt Fraser, the actor who plays the “Illustrated Seal.” He’s a gifted dramatic actor, and I could easily picture him doing Shakespeare, regardless of his flipper limbs.
Two things kept this season from ranking higher. First, the hyperbolically whiny, simpering “rich boy” antagonist is absolutely unbearable. Worse, he’s unrealistic. I know that’s not necessarily a problem in a series overflowing with witches, demons, and mad doctors, but this guy just stretches my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
Secondly, I felt the season drew a bit too heavily from the original Freaks. Homage is one thing, but “Freak Show” is in large part a remake of the Browning film, featuring recreations of all the movie’s most iconic shots. The cast and crew acknowledge their debt outright, in a scene in which the characters critique the film. Though I can appreciate showing some love to the classics (and particularly some lesser-known titles), this blatant “borrowing” felt a little lazy.
2. “Coven” (Season 3)
For the past few years, new seasons of American Horror Story have been posted to Netflix in December. This is obviously a little weird, and they finally fixed it this year by bumping the release date up to October (hence my aforementioned marathon). But it USED to be that new “AHS” was a part of my Christmas season. I think I’ll always have fond memories of being bundled up at a friend’s house in Williamsburg for the start-of-December festivities and watching “Coven” on my iPad.
Set at a Professor Xavier-type boarding school for witches, “Coven” chronicles the outbreak of a long-brewing witch battle between practitioners of Haitian Voodoo and the primarily white descendants of the “sisters of Salem.” This adds an interesting racial element to the season’s conflict. Even so, this seemed like the campiest season to date, with an emphasis on vampy witches trading sassy barbs. As such, it’s also the least scary. But as I’ve pointed out, by this point we’re used to the show BECOMING un-scary over the course of the season; this one just decided to forego the ruse and begin that way.
This season had three great things going for it:
–Arguably the scariest opening. Each season features a unique opening sequence, with a montage of subject-appropriate images set to a disturbing “theme song” composed of mildly-musical tearing noises. All are creepy, but something about this one takes things to the next level. Is it the goat demon? The levitating girls? The voodoo zombie with the spooky contact lenses? It’s all of that and more.
-Kathy Bates: The “Misery” star joins the “American Horror Story” stable this season, playing real life slave-torturer Delphine LaLaurie. Bates provides many of “Coven’s” most gut-churning moments, and has returned in prominent roles in each subsequent seasons.
-Confederate zombies: Why do Nazi zombies get all the love? Surely there’s room for a more homegrown variant of racially intolerant ghoul.
1. “Asylum” (Season 2)
After the dense freshman season, which only grew duller toward its end, I can’t say I was excited for round two. But since critics were raving, I pressed on…and I’m so glad I did. If you only watch one Season of “AHS,” make it this one. “Asylum” takes place in a 1960s-era mental institution run by the Catholic Church. An enterprising woman journalist pulls a Nellie Bly, intentionally getting herself committed to expose the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style corruption among the asylum staff. Of course, once committed it’s hard to prove one’s own sanity, and she’s soon at the mercy of the cruel nuns in charge. With brutal “treatments” like electroshock looming and an enigmatic serial killer prowling the halls, her struggle shifts from escaping to surviving at all.
The character arcs make this season one of the greatest in recent television. I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that no one (other than maybe the innocent reporter character) is who they seem. Over the course of these thirteen episodes, you’ll find your first impressions of nearly every character dashed to pieces and reconstructed from the ground up.
Oddly enough, this season also borrows horror tropes most rampantly from outside its “asylum” umbrella. Here you’ll find demonic possession, exiled Nazis, and even aliens, all of which manage to be crucial to the serpentine plot. It may not sound like it would work, but somehow it all comes together. All television connoisseurs ought to “check in” at the Asylum.
P.S. – Season 5 of AHS, “Hotel,” just premiered last week. The production design is certainly impressive, stuffed to brimming with the faded grandeur of art deco architecture. Plus, it stars Lady Gaga as some sort of vampire…so color me curious.