American Horror Story Recaps: Chapter One

by thethreepennyguignol

So, in the absence of Doctor Who, my recapping muscles have been twitching, rumbling, desperate for use. I needed something to fill that void. A new show to cover-something that fits the Doctor Who mould. Something from a creator I love to hate. Something that can either be fantastic or fucking abominable. Something I’ve watched, passionately, for years. Something…spooky.

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Yes, that should do it! I attempted to recap American Horror Story once before, but tailed off pretty quickly after Coven proved to be so astoundingly fucking rubbish and uninteresting (BUT YET I’ve met so many people who consider it their favourite season. Why? Please explain this to me in the comments). But both Freakshow and Hotel were both good and bad in deeply unique and dramatic ways, in ways that interests me a lot. So, with the sixth season having just premiered, without further ado, let’s get to it. Recapping American Horror Story, My Roanoke Nightmare. I just need some convincingly unsettling music to set the scene-

Full disclosure: someone on a crowded bus I was once on had this as their ringtone (the whistling, that is), and I full-on started panicking when they got a call, thinking it was the end, but at least I’d get to ogle Evan Peters in the flesh first. Luckily (/sadly) neither cam to pass.

Okay, so, first things first: what in the fuck is that subtitle? I liked that they held back on the descriptor for this season for so long, leaving audiences to stew with little in the way of detail-it kept hype at an impressive high, especially for a sixth season of a show that most people agree went off the boil a while ago. But when I spotted this trending on Twitter this morning, I have to admit my eyebrows did involuntarily dissapear behind my (admittedly enormous) fringe. Look, sorry, My Roanoke Nightmare? This is the dumb name of someone’s edgy spiritual self-published memoir, not a season of American Horror Story. Your cousin is sending you links to this book on Amazon right now because their high school friend who wrote it is on hard times and they need something to make ends meet. It’s ridiculous.

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But, beyond that, this opening episode- ominously titled Chapter One- is actually pretty solid. In fact, I would say  it’s one of the better premiers the show has under it’s belt. Why? Because, after years of high camp, it’s attempting to pull back to something more real.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. This is still a story of a couple moving into a clearly haunted/cursed (leaving my options here, so I can claim I was right down the line) giant old house in the country and finding themselves tormented by bizarre spirits who seem intent on chasing them out. Oh, and it’s all framed in a mockumentary-style with re-enactors playing various characters as the “real” participants tell the story to camera in talking head segments.. But when you recall that the list of leading characters over the years has included a Nazi doctor, possesed nun, legless German immigrant cabaret entertainer, age-jumping sexy maid, a literal Manatour, and, most disturbingly of all, a character played by Wes Bentley, this is about as real as it gets.

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Because these characters are…people. Yes, the show pokes some fun at the central couple- the show lightly jibes Shelby, played by Lily Rabe in the talking head segments and Sarah Paulson in re-enactments, and her modern-day hippy acoutrements, while her sister-in-law, played by Adina Potter and Angela Basset, gets a slightly cliched rogue cop backstory. The episode opens with Shelby and her husband Matt (Andre Holland/a Cuba Gooding Jnr presumably sticking to Ryan Murphy like glue after the success of American Crime Story) celebrating their first pregnancy only to be attacked, leaving Matt in the hospital. Though he recovers, Shelby loses the baby, and the two of them flee to the country to try and get a fresh start.

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One of the things that made the earlier seasons of AHS (one and two, specifically) so interesting is that they’re based around human relationships-not ghosts, ghouls, violence, or sex, but humanity. Whether it’s the tense relationship between a husband and wife trying to keep their marriage together or a nun tormented by the guilt she feels from her younger deviant days, the show (and most TV, in fact) is better when it pushes to be about something more than just the jump-scares. And this premise for the show? This is good- and, as the couple talk about their relationship in the past tense in the talking-head sequences, it’s casually suggested that we’ll be watching the disintegration of their relationship alongside all the horror trope. It’s a surprisingly human basis for the show, and the brittleness of their relationship provides a strong (and long-missed) emotional core and gives the show some tension even when their aren’t spooks prowling the halls.

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Because, of course, this is a show that by it’s very title explores the glorious tropes and cliches of the world of American horror. For the last few years, that seems to have mostly involved ratcheting up the violence to unthinkable levels (why, hello, various instances of spike-sodomy), but here the tension was built nicely without delivering any huge payoff- which is fine, because they’ve got masses of time to give everything a bit more depth yet. Just give me a few well-directed scenes (courtesy of stalwart AHS director Bradley Buecker) of a solo Shelby wandering the enormous, ancient farmhouse in pursuit of an odd noise, or the terror Matt feels when he spots intruders entering the property on the CCTV cameras he set up. Often, horror functions best when it’s not required to explain much, and Chapter One luxuriated in this ambiguity, earning a good few scares along the way.

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I mean, it’s a bit of a mess, just by virtue of having Ryan Murphy’s name attached to it- the fact that the lead characters are the ones telling the story, apparently a significant amount of time later, removes a lot of the tension, and I could see the mockumentary format getting old fast. But, for the first time in a while, this episode didn’t come out swinging trying to beat the audience into submission with shock and awe tactics- it actually, dare I see it, seemed to be setting up a story, sewing interesting little plot threads (like the video of the fucking brilliant Denis O’Hare in the basement, and the thing moving briefly in the forest towards the start of the episode) that it surely aims to unravel later. Rather than dumping everything proudly at your feet like a cat with the mangled corpse of a bird, American Horror Story showed a little restraint-and that’s a radically new place for a show as histrionic as this to be coming from.

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