Logline: The Harmon family is falling apart after a miscarriage and an illicit affair, so perhaps moving across country into a notoriously haunted house replete with a gaggle of poltergeists will bring them back together.
The first season of the FX television program American Horror Story is one of most successful and satisfying pieces of horror fiction produced in a filmed medium over the last ten years. Bold, maybe, but I have no qualms about saying as much. The program is contemporary while, by design, mired in history (historical, diegetic, and cinematic)-- the sort of program that will provide its viewers with a brief vignette visualizing a hypothesis about the death of Sal Mineo alongside a scene wherein a teenaged ghost attempts to type into his browser the correct spelling of "YouTube." It has all the lurid, melodramatic appeal of an addictive daytime soap opera but shot through with a manic sensibility in the construction of its characters and the progression of its storylines. While aware of its own pleasures as a product of kitsch, it does not settle for conducting itself with nothing more than knowing irony, instead striving towards a sense of commingled earnestness, eccentricity, and situational levity. Moreover, despite its many narrative curve balls, its mini-series ethos concludes the first season as a cohesive whole-- an independent narrative successful in crafting a universe with an internal logic all its own. One could call it an amalgam of Dark Shadows and Twin Peaks with a more prominent injection of horror into its veins, but that would be discounting the sense of condensed completeness that American Horror Story revels in, and which neither previous show (in their much longer, eventually stifled runs) was able to so deftly attain.
The first season of American Horror Story stands as a concentrated assemblage that culls inspiration from all areas of the horror canon, both cultural and cinematic: haunted houses, mad scientists, monstrously deformed children (It's Alive), the reanimated dead, home invasions, bodies in meat grinders, school shootings, gaslightings, leather-clad rapists, demonic pregnancies (Rosemary's Baby), the Antichrist (The Omen), The Black Dahlia, psychotic lovers (Fatal Attraction), Halloween hijinks, the lost colony of Roanoke, and ghosts who think they own the place (Beetlejuice). And although it is a program marked by its excess (sex, violence, and perversity are omnipresent), it never feels bloated or overblown. The writers mesh these elements together in a not-too-trying nonlinear presentation that feels only occasionally episodic but (finally) thematically sound. Its peculiar, breakneck editing (coupled with scenes that play out in what's closer to double-time in comparison to other prime time fare), kept me in a state of constant alert, regardless of the logical narrative turns that were being made-- this disorienting effect softened as the series fell into its groove and I became more attuned to its whims, but the approach never disappeared. Even more, at times the show manages to be unpredictable without resorting to unresolvable mysteries or incongruous twists-- another leg up over certain recent programs that shall not be named.
All of this said, I'm also convinced there's a bit of depth here beyond its transcendent use of pastiche. The inability of the Harmons to see beyond the surface of their house's ghost infestation is reflected in the show's actual production-- it is slick and glossy with an almost obscene suburbanized Gothic aesthetic, its apparitions more often mundane than terrifying (we're talking about a show that, in the season's later half, features a cast consisting of almost 80% ghosts). The recurring gag of the Eternal Darkness car tour (showing you the locations of all of L.A.'s most gruesome murders) underlines the show's central ambivalence towards its own concerns with history: when history is preserved, it faces the inevitability of becoming a commodity (example, one ghost is thrilled to have become a news item in L.A. history as "The Boy Dahlia," and seems less concerned with the fact that he's now dead). The Harmons' Murder House is a haunted American icon, representative of a horror tradition at large that needs preserving (in film, primarily, but also to some extent in reality, as the absence of such iconic locations renders the fictional situations implausible and lifeless-- as Phil Coldiron wrote about Ti West's The Innkeepers and its equally traditional horror location, "who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard by Marriott?"). But, that history which goes through the conscious act of preservation becomes something quasi-artificial and archetypical, rather than singular and untouched (I think the show's title can be taken literally, as in: this is "the American Horror Story"-- maybe all of them). It's an odd fate for traditional horror to have, but the alternative is worse: one character in the show wants to buy Murder House in order to raze it and build affordable housing on top. Thankfully, the show's ghosts refuse to sit idly by while that happens, and the season's finale reemphasizes the expressed desire to let sleeping houses lie (the anthology aspect of the series, promising no continuation of the Harmon family's story, helps further this point), although its pre-epilogue Hallmark Christmas tableau complicates any such easy proclamations about preserving the sanctity of traditional horror sans commercialism. American Horror Story pillages the corpus of American horror for every usable item of interest, but it does so with obvious affection and respect. Could one make that same claim for the hollow cinematic cash-ins of the past decade, those banking on brand recognition and our desire to dumbly cozy up against past images of terror embedded in our cultural memories?
Lastly, as with most involved soap operas, American Horror Story is also by parts an ensemble character piece, and the performances from the cast are appropriately unrestrained. Of particular note is Jessica Lange, of whom not enough good things can be said concerning her virulent, Gothic Blanche DuBois, and Evan Peters, whose character is one of the more nuanced portrayals of a bonafide sociopath I've seen (he plays Tate not with barely-concealed monstrosity but self-deluding crocodile tears). Knowing that both of these actors (and a few others) will return for more next season in an entirely different story and location has me looking forward to this October with more than the usual enthusiasm.