It will probably come as no surprise to fans of Nip/Tuck and/or Glee that American Horror Story [FX, Wednesdays, 10/9C] is an intense hour that is more than a bit overstuffed.
The premise of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story is that a longtime married couple – Ben [Dylan McDermott] and Vivien Harmon [Connie Britton] – move across the country, with their daughter Violet [Taissa Farmiga] seeking a fresh start after her nasty miscarriage and his affair with a student, winding up in a gorgeous but creepy haunted house.
The premiere opens in 1978 with red-headed twin boys about to enter the house while a little girl with Down’s Syndrome tells them ‘You’re gonna die in there’ – and chanting ‘You’re gonna regret it’ after they enter. After they break a bunch of stuff, they discover the basement – and find a lot of very strange objects in jars on old shelves. Nastiness ensues – setting up a couple terrific jump moments later.
Today: Vivien has an appointment with her gynecologist, arguing briefly over a prescription before going home and catching Ben in bed with one of his students. Cut to the family. In their car, arriving in Los Angeles and stopping in front of the house from the opening sequence.
In short order, Psychiatrist Ben has a new, very disturbed young patient, Tate [Evan Peters]; Violet makes a less than auspicious debut at her new school, and Vivien is startled by Allison [Jamie Brewer] – the girl from the opening sequence now grown up but still proclaiming ‘You’re gonna die in here’ – and her mother, Constance [Jessica Lange], a southern belle who not worn the years well.
The premiere is never less than creepy and does have some killer jump moments. There two sequences in the basement that are genuinely horrifying and the Harmons’ unique maid – she sees an older Moira [Frances Conroy]; he sees a much younger, sexier Moira [Alexandra Breckenridge] in a fetishist’s version of a maid’s uniform – is creepy in both guises.
The unlikely relationship that develops between Violet and Tate has a nifty connection her lousy first day at school and is one of the best parts of the ep.
The house itself is a classic 1920’s Victorian, with Tiffany fixtures and would be homey if not for the weird things that go on it – the way the neighbors seem to just appear; the nastiness in the basement; Ben’s sudden new habit of sleepwalking; the latex bondage outfits in the attic [not to mention an appearance by one of them later in the ep.
The house’s history is also creepy – though we learn early on that the previous owners died in the house [murder/suicide], and we’ve seen what happened with the twins, there’s a further gruesome revelation that comes from Larry Harvey [Denis O’Hare], whose family used to live there.
Everything about the premiere is heightened by lighting and music so that even Vivien’s OB/GYN appointment and the family in the car are made to feel creepy. There are no moments for us to key down and grab a breath that isn’t tinged with anxiety, or making us jump.
Written by creators Murphy [who also directed] and Falchuk, the premiere is slick, fast-paced and for all its relentlessness, does have the goods – in terms of providing some scary fun. Despite its good points, it does feel off because its parts are so disparate – Constance is campy while Ben and Vivien are not; one Moira is creepy, the other is creepy, sexy and campy; Allison is just creepy, and Vivien seems far too accepting at times [especially after being so very not for most of the ep].
One of the over-the-top moments that works really well comes when Ben unleashes his frustration and another comes in a confrontation in the final moments.
There is only really one character that comes across as sympathetic – Vivien. In all of this, she’s the only one who seems like a real victim. Ben is a narcissistic jackass; Violent is a sullen mess who cuts herself; Constance is almost vaudevillian, she’s such a broad broad, and Allison comes across as nothing more than a plot point – as do the Moiras, for that matter.
American Horror Story is thoroughly intense and does work one’s nervous system relentlessly. It’s also more than a bit uneven [if Glee was a horror movie, it would be American Horror Story]. There’s definitely enough substance to the premiere to keep me intrigued, and I’ll be watching with more than a little interest. Whether it jells or not, it will be a ride – and that is [almost] always welcome because an intriguing failure is preferable to boring competence.
Final Grade: B-
Photo by Robert Zuckerman/courtesy of FX