by Paul Deeter
Well it was bound to happen at some point. Purely Kino has covered all sorts of horror content, with some TV included (see Dahmer). And with the coverage of all things horror and niche in the entertainment genre naturally came the need to take on a subject of constant debate. American Horror Story is and has been for years a television staple of shock and schlock; both excessive in violence and sexual content. Its a series that covers as many genres of horror as possible; each season is a standalone horror story. Additionally never shying short of controversy, AHS has worked successfully enough to garner 11 Seasons now, and a spin-off: American Horror Stories which focuses on standalone short stories instead of periodical season long content. AHS is also the product of Ryan Murphy, who as I've mentioned in the piece on the Dahmer Netflix series is a staple of TV celebrityhood. His work on Nip/Tuck years prior and even Glee would only preface the success of this franchise though...Murphy wanted to do the opposite of what he had done previously and thus began his work on the series. He stated, "I went from Nip/Tuck to Glee, so it made sense that I wanted to do something challenging and dark. And I always had loved, as Brad had, the horror genre. So it just was a natural for me." AHS is one of the most successful and critically divisive TV series of the 2010s. And after its monumentally nominated and watched premiere season, for better or worse, AHS was here to stay. And while the show has seen its dip and sway in numbers, with a lot of the series existing in the background to much bigger Murphy projects, AHS has always just been around. I intend to spend time writing reviews on each season 1-11 (and whatever more comes down the road) and then eventually rank the series as a whole. Let's start with the perhaps the most watched, some would call the best of all the seasons: Murder House.
Murder House is star-studded. With the presence of Connie Britton as Mrs. Vivian Harmon aside Dylan McDermott, her husband: Ben Harmon we have two solid leads to carry the family dynamics. The show included somewhat nobody at the time Evan Peters as Tate, a mysterious maybe neighbor and daughter to the couple Violet played by Taissa Farmiga. The cast balances out the shows quirkiness in a solid way. Each character not including the supporting cast of ghosts and ghouls does their best to portray the often ridiculous script penned here. McDermott as the therapist operating inside the titled house, takes on bizarre clients who seem to just appear out of the woodwork. Britton is trying to get pregnant (a commonality for female characters in this series) in a tired trope that leads to a mysterious fatherhood. Violet falls for Tate, despite the fact that Tate (who may or may not be alive) is the perpetrator of a very poor taste school shooting. The graphic and unnecessary school shooting is shockingly portrayed in an early episode of this season, and sets the groundwork for what the show does best (or worst): controversy.
The characters struggle living in the house which has its own history of death and murder, to their knowledge. The knowledge is also spread among the community, and sometimes tour busses pass dropping history on the house publicly embarrassing the family and causing them more stress. Ben is also spotted out by a crippled and badly burnt character who thinks he knows Ben personally, and tries to drop his ghostly wisdom on the house. Tate is stressing the parents out, despite Violet's romantic interest in him. And then some strange night Vivian is impregnated. In a hallucinatory sexual encounter (with whom she thinks is Ben) Vivian finally succeeds in getting pregnant. But who's really responsible in the act? Ben's sexually disinterested in Vivian up until this scene, awkwardly masturbating in private to memories of younger, sexier neighbors he sees on his run. So what changed in his sexual attraction to suddenly attempt to conceive with Vivian?
Well there's this other factor: the Rubber Man. The Rubber Man (one of this season's most intriguing visual monsters) is a faceless entity in a gimp suit. He exists on most of the posters for the season, and is part of the mysterious allure that works best here. His sudden appearances add to the tension of this season, and he may or may not be sexually involved in Vivian's hallucinatory act. The Rubber Man is probably my favorite AHS monster; his silent presence effectively works not just as shock value for the sake of visual flair in this season but narratively makes sense in the dilemma of the potentially cursed pregnancy as well. And the season does seem kind of aimless without it. Ben's arc as a therapist does inspire some of the more solid ghost stories of the house: Piggy, Piggy is a solid midseason episode of a killer with a (you guessed it) pig mask who preys on one of his patients. But most of the ghosts here, even in the quintessential Halloween episode just range from bizarre and disturbing over actually scary.
In that let's talk about the strangest factor of most of AHS in each of its seasons. American Horror Story never seems to actually aim for jump-scares, which would be admirable for modern horror if it was actually effectively scary. Like solider upcoming seasons, Murder House does balance out its unusual plot with effective sometimes metaphorical ghost usage. But it never aims to scare truly, or if it does, it doesn't quite work.
But more on what works about the show is something I've yet to mention. Jessica Lange, classic Hollywood actor and winner of many awards for this season (and series) plays an overbearing mother and intrusive neighbor to the house with mysteries up her sleeve as well. The use of Jessica Lange and other supporting actors would play into the interesting use of returning actors that tie each season together in the only repeating factor used in this show. Eventually we do see homages to the Murder House and sometimes a character or two pops in to say Boo! but AHS doesn't work so well because it spends its time on one genre of horror. As I'll go into once we hit S2, the AHS style is to take on different styles and subjects of horror each season, but the actors in most remain the same. But like I said, more on that later.
As we get through the midway episodes of Murder House, the show starts to drag. Noticeably the Tate/Violet plot is one of the weakest parts of the season. But the Vivian mystery surrounding her unborn baby is a plot that builds into a promising direction, with the very real chance she will eventually give birth to a demon or even Antichrist baby. As the family strays apart, the ghosts become more of a threat. Will their marriage/parenthood continue to strain, or can they survive as a family or at all in the Murder House? The unfortunate thing about Murder House, and lots of seasons of this series, is that the end definitely misses the mark. Only a couple of seasons actually nail the landing in all honesty. But Murder House is greater than the sum of its parts. The series has some seriously lows and terrible moments of intense controversy. But it also keeps its audience guessing, and there's even some returning qualities at play. The acting is corny and the writing even worse, but that's some of the charm of the show. Its what makes it so hard to review. And critically it makes the series as a whole a completely divisive show.
Murder House is not my favorite season of AHS, but it will rank pretty highly. It is the charming and quirky horror tale that dares viewers to keep watching. It falls more into shock value than actual elevated horror (as much as I hate that term) and we will go into some more of that motif as the seasons progress. But when Murder House premiered, an influential and impossible to copy show was born. Murphy dared us to keep the channel tuned to, and after two viewings of this season, I wasn't ready to dial out just yet.
Season Review: B+