Monday, October 29, 2012

American Horror Story: Asylum ~ Uh Oh, Goodbye Originality

     Last year, American Horror Story had me about wetting my pants and laughing out loud at its shock, surprise, and originality.  It felt like a classic John Carpenter movie (Halloween, The Fog) with a better cast and a broader canvas on which to work its dark magic.  A friend said to me a couple of times that the daughter had to be a ghost and I didn’t
believe her until finally it seemed like the whole cast was going to end up dead.  All except Jessica Lange as creepy Constance (so appropriate), grandmother to the toddler Anti-Christ at the end.

A Nun Watching and Waiting
     Co-creator Ryan Murphy decided wisely to avoid a long season and, instead, produce a different story with most of the same players.  These would seem like quality decisions.  AHS:  Asylum is set in 1964 in a Catholic church run mental institution.  It shares some of the look of the first series, but it’s night (and dark) from the start.  Briarcliff is so brown, rotting, and just plain disgusting that it looks like a ‘30s Universal horror movie (Frankenstein, etc.) in color mated with the seamiest details that Clive Barker or James Ellroy would cut from a first draft.  It’s icky, feeling both prurient and sanctimonious in its handling of the nun overseeing the dump (Jessica Lange) with sexual fantasies about the priest to whom she reports (Joseph Fiennes – where’s he been since Shakespeare in Love?), the insane doctor performing ‘experiments’ (James Cromwell), and a reporter playing Nancy Drew and finding herself trapped there and her grade school teacher lover (Sarah Paulson and Clea DuVall) that the nun blackmails.  

     There’s also a contemporary framing device where a newlywed couple are looking around the dump (and it doesn’t look much different after being deserted and decaying for decades) because she’s a horror thrill-seeker and he gets his arm ripped off by some force and anyone who didn’t see that coming hasn’t sat through any modern horror film either good (Carrie) or crappy (Saw series).  There are references to Shock Corridor, the decades long federally funded medical experiments that stunned ordinary Americans when they were publicized in the 1970s, ‘grindhouse’ exploitation movies of the ‘70s, Italian Giallo, and early 20th century French Grand Guignol.  

     Murphy faces a dilemma.  He has an original vision, but that is anathema for a long running TV series (more than five seasons).  The creators of long shows with lucrative syndication rights take a proven idea and tweak it so that it isn’t too much of a cliché.  Generally, audiences find this comforting around the sixth or seventh season even though they genuinely were intrigued in the series during the first and second seasons.  He has an excellent cast.  Lange is going at full throttle and Lily Rabe displays her great range as the meek, servant nun.  She’s the type of actor who doesn’t repeat her past roles – instead creating a new body, look, gestures, speaking styles, and emotional pitch.  But how does Murphy keep this going?  I wish this season were in black and white or different coloring/lighting between the 1964 and the contemporary sequences.  I also wish it was more subtle and revealed less right off the mark.  Things to keep in mind for a third series set somewhere else I’m sure.

Dexter Waiting Outside the Asylum

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