Oh ‘American Horror Story’, how you had me fooled. What in the first season seemed like an over-the-top, gay music-video-f**k-fest re-imagining of a horror movie — which, somehow, starred Jessica Lange in her own production, which was a Tennessee Williams play — is now a very different second season.
And the first episode of season two is a knockout.
The US TV landscape is filled with series meant to keep you content on the couch; it typecasts actors and recycles premises. The anthology series has long gone the way of the dodo. So the fact that ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ is an anthology series already makes it untypical in the vista. The 60s and 70s had episodic anthologies like ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Night Gallery’. These shows had serious writers like Rod Serling, a very good writer indeed. But ‘American Horror Story’ anthologizes entire seasons, with many of the same actors returning in different roles than in season one. Bless them, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk seem to know that actors can act. In different parts.
What was a surface gleeful horror film put in a Southern Gothic TV blender, suddenly is very well shot and edited and has a darker, more beautiful heart beating underneath. Don’t be afraid; if you loved the first season, the series still has its feet firmly planted in horrorville with its 1960s Massachusetts asylum filled with weeping or stern nuns, indifferent orderlies, cruel doctors and drooling mental patients – and it is an absolute feast for movie lovers.
When we leave the brief contemporary framing story – a horny couple fools around in that abandoned asylum where Ed Gein-inspired serial killer Bloody Face was once committed! – we are in the early 60s with Jessica Lange as Sister Jude in full black habit, and the score started in and immediately plucked at my nerves. I took a few seconds to place it for Ardent director Chris Comrie, but when I did I somehow had to act out raising head and eyes ceiling-ward to illustrate the precise moment in ‘Carrie’ that Amy Irving sees the bucket of pig’s blood suspended over the taunted prom queen, as that was the exact piece of music used.
‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ is ‘Frankenstein’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Carrie’, and ‘Fire In the Sky’.
And here’s where it gets even more interesting: it’s also ‘In the Heat of the Night’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘The Children’s Hour’.
‘Spoiler Alert’: The excellent Evan Peters is back, this time as a white mechanic married to an African-American woman and yes, the threat to them in a small community in the early 60s is real. The wonderful Sarah Paulson is back playing Lana Winters, intrepid reporter, who thinks she can get a scoop on Briarcliff Asylum and sell it independently to Life magazine and make her career. When she explains this at home to Clea DuVall and moves in for a kiss, the blinds get drawn and DuVall reminds her that being a teacher, no one wants little Bobby or Susie being “taught by a dyke”. And in short order Sister Jude uses their secret as a lever to have the nosey reporter committed to her care, in order to be “cured” of her “unnatural” desires.
The scene of the threat to this couple was unspeakably tense and cruel; the camera is unsparing in its view of Paulson’s haunted eyes. In real life Paulson is a wonderful actress, an out-lesbian, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for her to play these scenes.
Gone are the stereotypically gay Californian renovating couple of season one: this is Camp as Redemption. There is a dark underbelly of horror in ‘Asylum’; it’s deadly serious, and it lies in the history of our shameful treatment of the mentally ill, the queer and the outsider.
This is enough to fill a whole season. And this is only episode one.