In part because it involves people associated with The New Normal and The Voice, the new season of American Horror Story, subtitled Asylum, is automatically scarier than the first one. Co-creator Ryan Murphy, the man behind the garish laughs of New Normal, has enlisted Adam Levine as one of his horror-show victims, and just watching the stubbly singer-scarecrow feign sex with his character’s new bride (Jenna Dewan Tatum) was effectively, thoroughly unnerving.
And of course, that’s not the scariest stuff Murphy and co-producer Brad Falchuck intend. Set primarily in a 1960s Massachusetts combo hospital-prison for the criminally cuckoo, AHS: Asylum is a mash-up of horror tropes whose foremost monster is Bloody Face. He/she/it wears a mask made of the skin of a victim (nip/tuck indeed!), and some of the other characters believe his true identity is Kit Walker, an alien-probed sap played by Evan Peters. (This skin-mask stuff isn’t new, but it does seem to be in the pop-culture air right now: The Joker is currently pinning his skinned face back onto his skull in the excellently drawn — by Greg Capullo — pages of DC Comics’ Batman: Death of the Family.)
Peters appeared in a different role in last season’s AHS, as did other returning actors such as Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, and Sarah Paulson. (Connie Britton, bless her heart, has escaped AHS only to confront the scary sprite Hayden Panetierre in Nashville.) Lange provides Asylum with some of its rare subtlety as Sister Jude, a sadistic nun who could have been a ridiculous figure, something out of a John Waters movie, were it not for Lange’s constant undercurrent of shaded sensuality.
A lot of the time, Asylum played like a cross between the work of directors Sam Fuller and Rob Zombie. Take a bit of Fuller’s Shock Corridor (reporter investigating a story about a 1960s mental hospital gets himself committed), add a bit of the female-in-danger atmosphere of Anatole Litzak’s 1948 The Snake Pit (Olivia de Havilland encounters cruel nurses in a similar ward) and add Zombie’s jarring editing of violence in stuff like The Devil’s Rejects, and you come close to the tone of Asylum.
As with nearly all of Murphy’s productions, there’s an emphasis on the fears associated with homosexuality: The anxiety about either coming out or (in the case of the ‘60s lesbian journalist played by Paulson) being found out; the fear-fueled homophobia unleashed by Sister Jude and Quinto’s psychiatrist Dr. Thredson, who disapproves of electroshock therapy to “cure homosexuality” but does ascribe to “behavior modification” for gay patients.
AHS: Asylum is, in its opening episodes (I’ve seen two), more strenuously, impishly funny than its predecessor. And the series makes good use of period music, including, this week, the Drifters’ ghostly, gorgeous 1959 hit “There Goes My Baby.” But Asylum also suffers from the sort of OCD storytelling that characterizes some of Murphy’s work, as though leaping rapidly from one scene/mood/clue to another will distract us from realizing we’ve seen these fright-night set-ups many times before. Here’s hoping Asylum’s heebie jeebies become a tad less frantic, its guignol more grand, and more fraught with psychological rigor before Lange and company drift off to the equally goosebumpy Camp Campiness.