When I first watched the pilot for American Horror Story one week ago, I found myself possessed by an unsettling demon: Indecision. Did I love it? Did I hate it? The birth of bloody brilliance… or the crowning of something rank? Part of my agitation had to do with the frantic, feverish sensory experience crafted by Ryan Murphy, who co-created the show with his Glee collaborator Brad Falchuk. The pilot left me wrung out by its battery of shock images and strung out from its jittery editing schemes. The show’s not scary – it’s punishing. Which, actually, might be the point, the more I think about it. And I have thought a lot about American Horror Story over the past seven days. (I will be recapping the show, after all.) I’ve also watched the pilot three more times, and each time, I’ve enjoyed it more, and seen more in it. The matter is now settled in my mind: American Horror Story is my favorite new show of the fall season.
You may disagree. It’s certain that many of you will. Some critics dig it, others loathe it. (See what EW’s Ken Tucker thinks here.) I agree with those who say that the very premise — a family terrorized by a haunted house — comes with the fatal logic flaw that discourages audience investment: Why the hell don’t they just move out already?! Yet I also agree with those who say that the hot-mess of it all makes it irresistible and interesting. Here are three things I found compelling about the premiere. They’re also the biggest reasons why I’ll be coming back for more (psychic punishment) next week:
THE HOUSE. It has rich history, it has a mysterious monster in the basement, it has cryptic artwork hidden under the wallpaper to be decoded. It may even have an agenda — and that agenda may not be evil. The (allegedly) haunted house of American Horror Story is — in my opinion — the niftiest setting for a TV show since The Island on Lost. It’s a deep, layered archaeological dig that should be great fun to explore. I hope — but I’m not yet convinced — that it can produce more than a season’s worth of stories.
CONSTANCE AND MOIRA. I’m totally drafting Murphy/Falchuk for my Fantasy Showrunner Team, just so they can write all the female supporting characters. Nobody does them better. Jessica Lange is fantastic as Constance, a one-time wannabe starlet with a keen, intrusive interest in the house and the troubled lives of its new owners, Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton). She’s a Southern witch full of snap and snark — a black cat on a hot tin roof. Francis Conroy plays Moria the housekeeper, a bitter old broad with a cataract eye who knows where all the bodies are buried in the house and has a sexy doppelgänger, played by Alexandra Breckenridge. The moment when Constance and Moira cross paths features the episode’s best line, and proves you don’t need shocktacular effects to capture the imagination.
THE THEMES. American Horror Story is a show about horror stories of all kinds, both real and fictional, even mythic and religious, and how they shape us, for better, worse or perverse. Where will American Horror Story fall on that continuum? I think the show itself acknowledges the relevancy of the question in a self-conscious scene in which a troubled young man declares the world “a filthy goddamn horror show.” As he says these words, the story cuts to a close-up on McDermott – and the film suddenly goes scratchy and jumpy, reminding you that you, too, are watching a horror show. Is it filthy? Fun? Redemptive? Ridiculous? Come back tomorrow morning and tell us when I post my full recap of the premiere.
NON-ESSENTIAL POSTSCRIPT (recommended only for those who enjoy nutty theories and crazy pop culture research): If you’ve seen the commercials or posters for American Horror Story, and especially if you’ve seen the sneak peek at the show’s creepy credit sequence (which the creators say is filled with allusions to the mythology of the house), you may have noticed the very distinctive font used for the titles. The typeface is sometimes known as Hill House, based on the handwriting of an influential Scottish architect and designer named Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose famous buildings include the Hill House mansion in Scotland.
Now, The Haunting of Hill House is Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel about an allegedly haunted mansion that might be trying to possess its occupants. An influence on many horror writers, the book may best known by its two movie adaptations. The first, The Haunting (1963) starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, is an atmospheric chiller that finds its scares in the psychological breakdown of the main protagonist. The second film, The Haunting (1999), starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was far less subtle. The story pivoted on a secret: That the original owner of the damned dwelling was a sick perv who killed kids and incinerated their bodies in his fireplace so their spirits would live with him forever.
Back to American Horror Story: What to make, then, of the show’s credit sequence, with its Hill House type and shots of child portraits set ablaze? (There’s also the character of Larry Harvey, who has a fiery backstory involving doomed kids. You’ll learn all about it tonight.) Are the show’s creators cleverly paying homage to a key influence? Are they suggesting their haunted house has something in common with the Hill Houses of horror fiction? Does American Horror Story blur the lines between fantasy and reality so much that the secret of the haunted house is that it was actually, literally built from pieces of other pop culture haunted houses?
Don’t roll your eyes at me! I WARNED YOU. (But rest assured: No nutty scholarship in tomorrow’s recap — just recapping!)