American Horror Story

Rating: ★★★★

I hadn't paid much attention to this show until quite recently, as my impression was that horror serials are generally tension-spinning pieces that drag on and on without purpose until the public stop watching them. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found here: American Horror Story is essentially a set of movie serialisations, transforming a concept that would usually be crammed into 90 minutes into a ten-hour production for you to binge upon.

The general thrust of the show seems to be to try and distill the essence of several different horror genres -- particularly, American horror. This seems to work extremely well in some cases, and less well in others.

Murder House, the first season, is probably the overall strongest of the lot. Its target is the haunted house genre, skillfully addressing Americans' discomfort with history as expressed in this genre, and using the medium of ghosts to visualise the latent forces of different origins that are 'trapped' together in modern America. Symbolism doesn't get in the way of some stellar performances, especially that of Jessica Lange as the indomitable older mother.

Asylum, the second season, attempts a dizzying crossover of psycho-killer, forced-imprisonment, alien abduction and demonic possession. The underlying theme seems to be the American tension between religion and science, with the show batting between different approaches to the unknown and terrifying. Its ambition carries it through some rough patches and hurried wrap-ups -- not a great success, but an entertaining attempt.

Coven is essentially a story about witchcraft. Rather lighter on the horror than previous seasons, with much more of an urban fantasy plot. The target was rather heavy-handedly racial divisions, with a 'white' witches cult descended from Salem pitted against a voodoo queen, and an ancient racist raised from the grave. It struggled to give a clear direction to its surface plot, flopping somewhat aimlessly between different solutions to a not-very-interesting problem of succession.

Freak Show is body horror, and a button-pusher about how the crippled, deformed or otherwise outcast are approached within society. Impressive for a well-curated cast of performers with deformities (amongst the several recurring cast altered with special effects), and the detailed sympathetic treatment given for the situation of outcasts. However, the plot stumbled and dragged quite often, and episodes seemed to linger on seemingly pointless targets like musical numbers, leading to an overall impression that the season took forever to move on. Occasionally great cringe-scenes.

Hotel is a vampire and ghost story set in a hotel, tapping into fears of staying somewhere strange on a temporary basis. Mixed into this is the detective thriller, the officer chasing a sadistic killer and finding them too close to home. Somewhat light on underlying themes (that I could see, anyway), but carried off with a style and deliberate pacing that made it enjoyable -- and I like vampire films, generally.

Roanoke breaks out of the cage, first of all offering what looks like a variant retreading of Murder House -- the haunted house out in the country, where strange locals glare at an interracial couple -- but is actually a horror story about the 'true crime' and 'real horror' TV shows, and their ruthless fetishism of real tragedies. Includes a lot of satisfying punishment-murders along with the glaring at the fourth wall.

Cult attempts to continue the overt hyper-relevance, starting from the horror story of the 2016 election. It then spins into a culture-wars themed cult plot, in a somewhat confusing manner -- I think the point being that cult leaders don't really have a plan, even if they seem like they do. Rather tiresome for the 'gender tension' it played up, including both a weird and aimless white male supremacist gathering and a society of violent misandrists, with the misandrists eventually coming out on top.

Apocalypse would be an apt ending to the series, and it certainly appeared like it was trying to be -- wrapping in loose plotlines from Murder House, Coven and Hotel with an Antichrist story that was more often amusing than it was chilling. Also seemed to be stoking 'gender wars' sentiment, with the coven revealed to have a weaker male counterpart whose fragile egos are to blame for the end of the world. The generally okay plot was marred a bit by a '3 years earlier' coming a few episodes in, leading to the feeling that events were less interesting.

There is apparently a ninth season, 1984, which I haven't seen because it's not on Netflix, and from the description isn't about anything Orwellian.