Plenty of evidence suggests that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are a couple of sick puppies (Gleefully so), especially as it concerns their new series American Horror Story. There's the glistening, black-clad "Rubber Man"—a supernatural rapist, no less. Also the body parts in jars. But in perhaps the most demented move of all, Murphy and Falchuk clearly intend harm to Kim Novak. Earlier this year, Novak took out an ad in Variety to target The Artist for its appropriation of Bernard Herrmann's music from Vertigo. "I want to report a rape," she wrote. "I feel as if my body—or, at least my body of work—has been violated by the movie, The Artist. This film could and should have been able to stand on its own without depending upon Bernard Herrmann's score from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo to provide it more drama...I believe this to be cheating, at the very least. Shame on them!"
While disagreeing with her choice of words, one can easily sympathize with Novak's identification of a taste violation. She missed or chose to ignore the crime perpetrated by Murphy and Falchuk, who also employed Herrmann music that film aficionados consider inextricably tied to classic films (Vertigo, Psycho, and Twisted Nerve), in the course of their new series. Despite finding the Herrmann lift incredibly annoying, I will concede a thematic justification, for American Horror Story—like Glee's Will Scheuster—loves mash-ups, self-conscious collisions of their "everything old is new again" storyline and classic cinematic chillers (The Shining, The Sixth Sense) or true-crime tales (school shootings like that at Columbine High, mass murderers like Richard Speck, victims like "The Black Dahlia"). But Murphy and Falchuk don't go after anything deep about the American character; they just want the reflected glow of America's collective nightmares as they peddle their own ambitious, at times affecting, but generally klutzy serialized/recurring bad dream.
At its essence, American Horror Story plays out an archetypal "haunted house" story, with the hook being that the somewhat anthropomorphic "Murder House" has been the site of not one but several grisly crimes (and thus is the star attraction of the fictional "Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood"). In the wildly in-your-face pilot episode, the house becomes home to an unwitting family: therapist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), recently caught red-handed in an act of infidelity; his wife Vivien (Connie Britton), skeptical that their marriage can be saved; and their dark-minded teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who has the nasty habit of cutting and a rebellion at least partly born of her understanding that her parents' marriage appears to be crumbling around her.
Ominously, the house all but comes with a maid named Moira; in one of the series' best moves, fifty-seven-year-old Frances Conroy and twenty-nine-year-old Alexandra Breckenridge take turns playing the part (beauty being in the eye of the beholder). Moira is but one of several characters with intimate knowledge of the house and its secrets. Politically incorrect next-door neighbor Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange, who collected an Emmy for the role) and her daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer), who has Down Syndrome, frequently invite themselves over to the Harmons' place and creep them out. Meanwhile, Ben uneasily treats troubled teen Tate (Evan Peters), who strikes up a relationship with Violet; Ben can no more shake Tate than he can Hayden McClaine (Kate Mara), the young woman with whom he cheated on Vivien. A yet freakier threat to Ben comes from burn-scarred Larry Harvey (Denis O'Hare), a volatile and unpredictable character who has—like Moira, Tate, and Constance—a past marked by suffering in the house.
Some of these characters, as you might well imagine, are ghosts with an interest in protecting their turf and carving out some afterlife happiness by hook or by crook. Before the deliriously nutty first episode comes to a close, Vivien will be pregnant, perhaps by Ben, perhaps by a rubber-suited rapist she mistakes for Ben, or perhaps by both (stay tuned...). This plot turn sets up a season-long arc destined to detonate a Rosemary's Baby climax, but not before oodles of hauntings and corpses pile up around the Murder House. Each episode begins with a teaser revealing a horror story from some time in the house's history, ranging from the 1920s escapades of original owners Charles and Nora Montgomery (Matt Ross and Lily Rabe) to the recent tragedy of bickering gay couple Chad and Patrick (Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears).
On the plus side, the series is ambitious in attempting an extended "mini-series" of weekly horror (part of the design is to tell a contained story every season), and the often wild stylistic flourishes can be invigorating, whether it be the outré-ness of the "Rubber Man" or the creepy appropriation of Patience and Prudence's sing-songy take on "Tonight You Belong To Me" to give voice to the house. Lange, in particular, strikes the right note of camp (admittedly harder to do if you're McDermott and asked to cry while masturbating), and there's some genuine poignancy at times, as in the twisted "Romeo and Juliet" arc between Tate and Violet.
But American Horror Story lives by its loopiness and dies by it as well: the show is seriously scattershot, and most of the time when a plot point or scene earns some goodwill, it quickly fades as the viewer realizes the source from which Murphy and Falchuk have ripped it off—err, the source to which they're paying homage. As Season Two settles into a mental institution, it remains to be seen whether or not that familiar horror setting will yield more consistent and creatively fulfilling storytelling.
In time for Halloween, Fox gives American Horror Story top-flight treatment in its Complete First Season on Blu-ray. The transfers are terrific, retaining the show's filmic texture (grain is intact) and shadows that sometimes scarily swallow the better part of the image while keeping a strong black level, tight contrast, rich color, and substantial detail. Lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mixes serve these twelve episodes well, layering the creep factor with unease by engaging the rear channels at key moments (things go bump in the night).
A handful of key bonus features add value, beginning with an audio commentary on "Pilot" with co-creator Ryan Murphy. Murphy makes a pretty gregarious host, with a steady stream of recollections about how the show came together and specific challenges in the execution of various scenes.
"The Murder House: Presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood" (6:35, HD) is a bonus short film in which the show's fictional tour guide leads a group into the Murder House.
"Behind the Fright: The Making of American Horror Story" (24:38, HD), the meatiest extra, includes EPK-style interviews with the creators and principal cast, as well as production set footage. Don't watch it until you've seen the entire season, as it includes major spoilers.
The self-explanatory "Overture to Horror: Creating the Title Sequence" (9:12, HD) allows main title designer Kyle Cooper and composers Cesar Davila-Irizarry and Charlie Clouser to discuss their work.
Lastly, "Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts" (15:10, HD) itemizes the show's supporting ghouls.
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