Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review - American Horror Story

A foreboding house.
A creepy young girl with an ominous warning.
A dark basement filled with jars holding you-don't-want-to-know-what.
The violent murder of two twin boys under mysterious circumstances.

Quite a killer beginning to a new series.  Where American Horror Story goes from there is, I have to admit, incredibly difficult to put into text.  But maybe that's the point of this intriguing, unsettling, albeit baffling new show about a family, their new home and a plethora of issues old and new.

This new FX series from Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk, creators of Nip/Tuck and Glee (a far cry from the latter but as envelope-pushing as the former) stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) as Ben and Vivian Harmon, a couple looking to make a fresh start while trying to repair their relationship after Ben's extra-marital affair.  Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga) plays daughter Violet, a tough-skinned teenager with self-harm tendencies.

A recurring cast of unnerving characters includes Academy Award winner Jessica Lange as imposing neighbor Constance, who has a penchant for repeatedly letting herself into the Harmon household; Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) as housekeeper Laura, who may or may not be deceased; and Evan Peters (One Tree Hill), as Tate, a disturbed young patient of Ben's with confessed homicidal fantasies.

I honestly don't know quite what to make of this show.  The pilot featured a distinct filming style - jump cuts, quick zooms, did-you-see-that? images - and it definitely has a high creep factor that draws you in and makes you feel like watching it with the lights off to get the full effect. There were some usual horror-story setups (like "Is there someone in the house?"), but they were made effective by the absence of a music soundtrack, leaving you to listen for every distant sound and hear every creak of the floorboards.

**Episode details follow**

The family's back story is thus:  Vivian delivered a stillborn baby son.  In her grief, she shut Ben out, which led to his having an affair with a student.  Looking to start over, the couple relocates to their current home, the same house where the twin boys met their violent end decades before - a house with apparently a long history of tragedy of death.  Ben is sexually frustrated (Vivian has denied him for nearly a year), so it's no surprise he finds himself disturbingly aroused by Laura, who he sees as a hot young woman and not the elderly matron Vivian sees (Conroy).  After the couple finally reconnects physically, Vivian is later approached by a figure in full S&M rubber, mask included, and proceeds to go for "round two" with him, believing he is Ben but not realizing it's not.  Later she discovers she's newly pregnant.  So who's the daddy?

Still with me?  Yeah, I know.  I'm still processing it myself.

Other twisted moments included Violet - with Tate's help - getting payback against a bullying schoolmate in the afore-mentioned basement (strobe effect and a fanged, gender-ambiguous attacker make for a disturbing sequence); ghostly images of the slaughtered twin boys behind an unsuspecting Vivian; and Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), a Down Syndrome girl who as a youngster warned the twin boys that they would die in the house and now taunts the Harmons that they'll suffer the same fate.

I appreciate the shock value American Horror Story is going for - there's certainly not a lack or language, sexual situations and violence - and it has found the right home on FX, the network known for other twisted series like Nip/Tuck and Wilfred and gritty, hard-edged series like The Shield and Sons of Anarchy.  The preview tagged onto the end of the pilot gave a glimpse of what is to come and it definitely looks to be both gruesome and chilling.  I'm game to give it another go.

Bottom line:  A tale of terror poised to take you down an unpredictable road ... kind of refreshing.

Catch American Horror Story Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.

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