The Cutprice Guignol

The Ninth Year: The Haunting of Swill House

Tag: american horror story

American Horror Story Recaps: Chapter One

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.

american-horro-story-symbolism

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American Horror Story, Hotel: Indefensible

Well, that’s it: they’ve fucked it. They’ve gone too far. There’s only one way to describe the premier of American Horror Story’s fifth season, Hotel, and that’s indefensible.

The show had always threatened jumping the shark, but here they’ve less jumped it than nonconsensually sodomized it in a seedy motel room. Series one and two balanced so carefully outrageous camp (Jessica Lange feeding the corpse of her husband to her dogs, a possesed Lily Rabe delightedly choosing a cane with which to beat her asylum-bound charges) and genuine emotional stakes (ugh, the “Never trust a drunk” scene between Jessica Lange and Francis Conroy in season two, basically), but series three and four seemed to throw any kind of semblance of over-arching plot to the wind in favour of…witches? The sentient head of Kathy Bates? Denis O’Hare getting Freaks-ed?

Suddenly, they weren’t dedicated to creating interesting, thematically coherent stories with plenty of dark horror elements; they wanted to make hyper-camp, unbelievably bad taste exploitation flicks that yeah, did occasionally hit some televisual sweet spot and remain kind of entertaining. Every season, there seemed less and less that was compelling about the show. Sure, there were a few great performances, some good scenes, some great lines, but none of it hung together as anything other than a series of halfway connected vignettes. With a big overhaul in place for their fifth year, I was hoping that they might reclaim some of the decent stuff that had made the first two seasons so compelling.  But with the first episode of season five, Checking In, out this week, I think I may have lost the last vestiges of goodwill I had towards American Horror Story.

I recall when Denis O’Hare got actual acting to do!

Right, let’s get this out of the way. Here are the things I liked about that episode: Kathy Bates’ acting, Sarah Paulson having a legitimately sassy role, the tantalising promise of Evan Peters. There. That’s it. I’m done. Wes Bentley’s performance as the tragic cop who winds up living at the hotel is good, but everything about his crime-scene investigations comes off as cut-price Hannibal (mainly because he reminds me of Chilton a little bit) with elaborate and violent mutliations that serve no actual plot purpose beyond having a guy’s penis glued inside a dead girl’s vagina. And hey, that starts us off on my first major gripe with this episode: the outrageous amounts of sexualised violence.

Look, I have a pretty strong stomach for almost any kind of violence. I watched The Human Centipede 3, for Christ’s sakes. I can appreciate violence when it’s either done well or adds something to the plot; outside of that, I’m not really going to enjoy it, and it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to believe that it’s necessary. And this episode…yeesh. There were hot blonde teenagers being force-fed in their skivvies, there was a shockingly unsexy soft-porn sequence where a vampiric Lady Gaga (more on her later) and her partner hump then murder an unsuspecting young couple, and there was, of course, the scene where a dope fiend got violently sodomized with a spike.

Honestly, my rule for these kinds of things is that if Se7en wouldn’t do it, there was probably a good fucking reason for that.  And that reason is that showing, in pretty graphic detail, a man getting raped with a giant spike only enlightens the viewers as to what a man getting sodomized with a fucking spike looks like. The scene genuinely upset me, and also made me really angry, because Ryan Murphy and his team have been throwing around sexualised violence a lot in their shows recently, often to no real conclusion. This was just an extension of that in the worst possibe way: we learnt nothing, we were told nothing, and it all seemed like an excuse to show us something “shocking” and “edgy”, trivialising the pretty grotesque act. Do you remember the rape scene in series two, where the camera slowly pans in on Sarah Paulson’s traumatised face, and how impactful that was? Compare it to this scene: vile, exploitative, and simply there to feed the dumb gross-out violence of a certain subset of horror fans (note: this is the second time someone has been bummed to death in this show. Just so we’re keeping count). I hated it. I HATED it.

But let’s focus on some other elements of the show. Firstly, Lady Gaga: if there’s one thing I could say for certain that Lady Gaga has, it’s presence, but for some reason it just didn’t translate on screen. Her line readings veered between terrible and just bearable, but she was a nothing of a character beyond the outrageous outfits and dirty, kinky sex, neither of which she really carries off. Her partner, Matt Bomer, is playing a nineties boyband star- not literally, but take a look at these photos and tell me I’m wrong:

-and he was fine, but in a completely forgettable way. The two of them had a kind of Spike-and-Drusilla vibe, if Joss Whedon had had the bad sense to show the audience the two of them constantly boning. It’s their relationship that makes it interesting, not the constant soft-porny shots of Matt Bomer’s ass. AHS has a long and proud history of showing copious amounts of man-ass, but this was too much, even for me (have you seeeeeen the pictures of Finn Wittrock this season though? Can’t handle that hotness, because at least 30% of my attraction towards this show is the unbelievably gorgeous men).

UGH BRB DYING

More than anything, the show felt like a series of disconnected vignettes. If you’ve had the misfortune of watching Kanye West’s godawful Runaway, then that’s the best point of reference I can find for Checking In. It was dumb, all over the place, with apparently no real urge to go anywhere or do anything or explain any of the reasoning behind it’s often tasteless choices. American Horror Story has always been trashy TV, but this went beyond that and into the realm of exploitation for the sake of exploitation. The whole thing reads like Gaga’s own Bad Romance video: occasionally cool, wierdly headwormy, but ultimately signifying nothing.

On Adulthood and Alcohol

In the past week, it’s been my birthday, I got really sick, and a Fast & Furious star died in an ironic car crash. I’ve been getting good and existential over the last few days, helped by the slight move closer to death and lots of rum consumed over the last few days. With my teenage life-less as a member of the human race than as a runner in a weepy, Paula-Radcliffe style half-marathon-entering into it’s last year, some semblance of adulthood is drawing near and I feel this should be acknowledged. There have definetly been some vague steps in this direction over the last year-university, wobbly steps into a writing career, my own flat, becoming weirdly obsessed with hipster American sweets-but one of the main things that defines one’s leap into the Real World is alcohol.

When you start drinking-and my very first drink was a bottle of tooth-achingly sweet pear cider my Dad got me when I was sixteen-there is a certain amount of mystique to it. You think you’re infallible, impossible to inebriate and immune to hangover. The first time I got drunk was with my excellent friend back home over two Jackass films, when I realized I had had far too much to drink after I woke up with both my foot and my hair in a small pile of my own sick on his floor. My head was furious at me, my eyes thick with blergh, and my friend wasn’t impressed that I’d been sick down his Busted Tour T-shirt (sorry Cameron). But there was a kind of righteous, swaggering dignity to that hangover; like bills or unwanted pregnancy, I had a problem that was exclusive to the quasi-adult world. In my ironic t-shirt and crusty hair, I’d permanently joined the world of the grown-ups for a grim, miserable morning.

The first term of university is best glossed over; while I didn’t drink myself into a coma every night, being away from home and forced at fucking gunpoint by everyone in the world to MAKE FRIENDS FOR LIFE because it’s PART OF THE UNIVERSITY EXPERIENCE was simply aided by a generous dollop of social lubricant. It was also around this time that I began to see nothing wrong with indulging in a good movie, a bottle of wine and no humans cluttering up the proceedings because sometimes, people just can’t live up to inebriated fiction.

(On a side note, drinking alone is curiously maligned; I wouldn’t encourage sitting at home weepily downing a bottle of whisky as the night draws in evening after evening, but simply peppering around a bunch of people to make it seem more legitimate is ridiculous. I had a cheeky few glasses of wine over a Heston Blumenthal marathon last week and it was heaven; other people would have just laughed at me for getting weepy when he made the sick kids at that hospital happy).

I realised earlier this evening that I’m a real grown-up/ponce when I made and enjoyed a Fancy Drink (rum, coke and a squeeze of lime. Alright, so my standards are low). I sat with a great friend, gossiped, chatted about real life, American Horror Story and ate junk food as the night wore on-and that’s the best part. The moment at which alcohol becomes, not a quick way to avoid an arse-clenchingly awkward lack of conversation, or a cheap sleeping pill with added hangover, but simply a tasty addition to an already wonderful evening, is when I consider it to be a part of my grown-up life in the real world. I’ll drink to that.

American Horror Story: Burn, Witch, Burn!/The Axeman Cometh

I’ve noticed something about this series of AMH; each pair of episodes seems to play out at a set-up/pay-off rate from week-to-week. One week there’s a plot heavy furore where we get introduced to all the shit that’s going to go down in the next episode. I don’t particularly mind this set-up, but it still leaves the season with an overall sense of uneveness and lack of coherency.

Take the last two episodes as an example: Burn, Witch, Burn! was a ridiculous, thrilling, breathlessly entertaining hour that blasted through a bunch of brilliantly fun plot points, climaxing in an outrageously slick finale/tribute to Resevoir Dogs in which a stake-burning took place to the strains of Right Place, Wrong Time. It was sickeningly cool; fuck, Jessica Lange lit to pyre with her cigarette. Also scattered around the episode were some cool zombies, Taissa Farmiga growing some balls (and wielding a chainsaw into the bargain), and Jessica Lange winning herself an Emmy in the course of five minutes, a hospital room and a stillborn baby. It was a manic, hilarious, grotesquely affecting episode that hit all the markers set up by last week’s outing.

Then the latest episode-featuring Danny Huston as real-life serial killer The Axeman of New Orleans-just seemed to be preparing us for what was about to happen. Aside from Angela Bisset delivering the line “white-ass cracker bitch” and some gratefully recieved Lily Rabe, there wasn’t much actually going on in The Axeman Cometh. It was still entertaining enough (and benefited from a lack of Kathy Bates, who the writers just don’t seem to know what to do with), but there was a real sense of tantric TV; they brought us to the pitch of excitement then did nothing about it because they’re saving their metaphorical ejaculation for next week’s outing.

On a side note, I’ve been doing a bit of research into this series (which Stevie Nicks has confirmed her appearance in, yeah!), and discovered that no less than three characters are based directly off people who really existed. The least offensive of these is probably Angela Bisset as Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Because there’s clearly a lot of mythos surrounding her anyway, adapting her into a kick-ass voodoo bitch-slapper isn’t really much of a leap. But then you’ve got Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie. Now, forgive me if you disagree, but when you take someone who genuinley existed, and did some really quite upsettingly horrible things to innocent people for a large part of her life, and whack her in a semi-serious show as an immortal, highly racist bit of comic relief, aren’t you somewhat undermining the nature of the astoundingly awful things she’s done?

So, this week on AMH: I over-analyse my over-analysing. Great.

Ryan Murphy: Defended

Ryan Murphy, eh? What’s the deal with the evil genius behind Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, and (of all things) Glee? I’ve recently been re-watching Nip/tuck, the soap opera on acid that takes places in a plastic surgery clinic to better follow the lives of it’s two surgeon protagonists, Christian Troy and Sean McNamara. Now, this all sounds pretty par for the course so far, but this is a Ryan Murphy show, so I can guarantee that it’s probably going to smack you round the face with a big block of unlikely stories before running away and singing some show tunes on his other show.

One of the hallmarks of Murphy show (and, I suppose, a Murphy/Falchuck creation, because dear old Brad has had so much to do with the conception of both American Horror Story and Glee) is the completely hectic pace at which they rattle through plotlines; a kind of ADHD storytelling that works pretty convincingly if, like me, you tend to get bored with shows that linger over one plot strand too long. There’s also the sheer outrageousness of the plots to contend with, too; American Horror Story pretty much excepted, because, c’mon, it’s a horror show. But looking at Glee or Nip/Tuck or even Popular, shows which are allegedly set in the real world (even a violently technicolour version of it) are filled with stonkingly unbelievable plots.
For example, one character in one particular show (which I won’t name for spoiler’s sake) dates a closeted lesbian, tries to cut his own foreskin off, gets involved in a three-way relationship with her and her new girlfriend, dates a transsexual, dates a bigoted racist chick, beats the crap out of an unrelated transsexual, marries his father’s ex (who’s also a porn star), has a baby, gets into gay porn, becomes a meth addict, gets caught in a meth explosion, falls in love with his burns counsellor, decides to go to college to become a doctor, becomes a mime instead, goes on a robbery spree dressed as a mime, ends up somebody’s bitch in prison, strangles him with some lingerie before getting released early and running off with aforementioned baby and aforementioned transsexual to start a new life. After that, you’d want one. It’s mental. It’s ridiculous. And the worst part is I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that happens to this character.

And that’s the hallmark of Murphy (and, later, Murphchuck shows): they are unbelievably silly. Yeah, occasionally Glee glanced over some after-school-special territory with bullying and homophobia and teenage pregnancy and what have you, but for the most part they revel in hysterical histrionics. Nonsense is what they do best, and I don’t think there’s anything outrightly wrong with that- in fact, I think it’s what makes them some of my favourite TV-brainboxes working right now. Never ones to rely on what they already know to sell a programme, they’ve constantly bounced between genres because, presumably, they get bored dealing with just one-and, surprisingly enough, they often create shows that are actually kind of excellent.

I will hold up my right to watch, read, and listen to trash as long as I enjoy it on some level, and Murphchuck have consistently created just the right balance of trash and moderate innovation for me to continue watching. Gourmet crap, if you will.

American Horror Story: Fearful Pranks Ensue

Ladies and Gentemen, we have horror. Repeat, we have horror. The latest episode of Murphchuck’s finest series opens with a brilliant three-minute sequence featuring racism, the 60s, voodoo nonsense, and revenge zombies. I’d pay good money to see that in a full-length movie, and it’s added to by the fact that AHS seems to have taken a step back from the innately uncomfortable LSD trip that was last week and embraced some familiar horror.

This episode is really an indulgent nod to fans of the past seasons, with Alexandra Breckenridge and Frances Conroy returning in substantial roles, and Denis O’Hare finally getting some solid (and brilliant) screentime. Involving a mute character is always a brave choice, especially when you consider O’Hare’s first appearance in the show where he goes like a wind-up toy, but the man’s got such talent and wit that he actually manages to sell all the disconcertingly surreal sequences this episode presents him with.

After a couple of shaky set-up episodes, Fearful Pranks Ensue features the cast in full flight as the series squares up to the insanity of the various plots. It’s a breathless dash through minatour rape, creepy tea parties, the utterly magnetic Angela Bisset, the Witches Council, undead Evan Peters, and some stuff which even might be an attempt at thematic consistency. What I like about American Horror Story, and what I have always liked about it, is the pace at which it rattles through ideas. I have the image of the writer’s room, filled with jittery scribes jacked up on greasy joe from the machine outside, going “Yeah, but what if we did THIS?” “But then what about THAT?” “What do we do with THEM?” until some sort of passably coherent script is churned out.

This makes it completely unpredictable-for the last few weeks, I’d been bemoaning how boring Sarah Paulson’s subplot with her boring, boring husband was and BAM! Left-turned the whole thing for no apparent reason. Thought Emma Roberts was going to be in the full series? Think again. You’ve worked out who the new supreme is? Nope. And that’s what keeps me coming back; because just when you’ve got a grip on the whole thing, it knees you in the groin and feeds you to the manatour.

American Horror Story: Boy Parts/The Replacements

I’ve been re-watching American Horror Story recently, and one the things that got me about this show is the balance of crazy shit and genuine storytelling. In one scene, Jessica Lange is gleefully feeding the mashed-up remains of her husband to the dogs; in the next, Evan Peters is committing a harrowing school shooting. Occasionally, AHS strikes this balance perfectly and the show shines. A lot of the time, it doesn’t, but usually it tips over into batshit lunacy and retains some entertainment value at the risk of throwing any semblance of plot out the window.

And that’s how I plan to dissect the two latest episodes of Coven. Take apart each plot thread and examine it for levels of ridiculousness, emotion, style, finesse and scary shit. Because that’s the only way you can come close to looking at this show scientifically and not get distracted by Jessica Lange.

Plot Thread One: Frankincest

Let’s get right into the juicy stuff; Emma Roberts and Taissa Farmiga sneak into the morgue where the victims of episode one’s bus crash are being held and assemble a franken-frat boy from the remains so Zoe can have her boy toy back. That’s all well and good, and (with a brief detour to an inexplicably alive Lily Rabe channeling a hotter Stevie Nicks under their belt), it looks as if Zoe might have a fuck who won’t have an aneurysm every time they get past third base. Then Taissa makes the stunningly stupid decision to bring Kyle back to his mother in the hopes of reviving some of his ebbing humanity. What follows is essentially a panning shot of the truly horrified faces of the audience; Kyle’s mum, realizing his body is not as she remembered it, is revealed to have indulged in a whole lot of incest with her recently-deceased son. Which we are then briefly privy to. Luckily for us, Kyle then resolves the issue by beating his mother to death in a fit of poorly-articulated rage. But that image of his ma going in for a handy? Nope.

CRAZINESS: 8
STORYTELLING: 5, at a push.

Plot Thread Two: Goings-on at Hogwarts

Pheeeeeoooow, so, a hot new neighbour has moved in next door (his mother played by a bible-bashing Patti LuPone), but seems more interested in Nan (played with incredible competence, wit and style by Jamie Brewer) despite Madison (Emma Roberts-still solid, by the way) practically impregnating him with one, short-skirted quip. Meantime, Kathy Bates is adapting to modern life, haunted by the gruesome deaths of her family and by the fact we have a black president (hot tip for line reading of the decade for Bates’ reactive delivery of “liiiieeeeeees!”). Matters aren’t helped by the fact Jessica’s made her Gabourey Sibide’s “slave” (subtle move for racial equality there, Murphchuck), or the return of the brutal minatour figure that she created in the first episode. Which Queenie then goes on to seduce. Yes, fact fans, we’ve vaulted the boundaries of bestiality and incest in one episode.

Craziness: 9
Storytelling: 7

Plot Thread Three: Jessica, Demon Sex, misc.

Jessica Lange’s Fiona is still swanning around, winning acting forever, but only one main event directly involves her in this two-parter: she murders a young witch who she believes threatens her place as the supreme. Apart from amusing herself, tormenting Kathy Bates and committing minor misdemeanors, The Replacements begins with a superb speech, courtesy of writer James Wong, in which Lange bemoans her aging and her declining health in the most beautifully clever way. Then she fucks some shit up.

Angela Basset is still killing it, the only woman who can hold a candle to Jessica Lange, as the sinister voodoo witch priestess nonsense. Unfortunatley, she doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with what’s actually going on, aside from poking around Sarah Paulson’s womb in a pointless infertility subplot that grossly wastes the talent of everyone involved (but involved Paulson having sex on what appeared to be a set from The Exorcist). I like her laid-back cool and the sharp writing that defines her character, and at the moment I’m just waiting for the mighty trio (Bates, Bisset, Lange) to come together in what will be an earth-shattering Clash of the Titans.

Craziness: 7
Storytelling: 8

American Horror Story: Bitchcraft

Hoo-fucking-rah! American Horror Story has returned, and not a damn minute too soon. This genius series from the makers of Glee has smashed it’s way back onto my TV screen with the third series, Coven, following the jolly larks of a group of young witches.

The Worst Witch it ain’t; the opening scene (featuring an electric Kathy Bates playing her best psycho since Misery) jumps straight into the dark side of the show, with viscous torture and a rather clumsy handling of the RACE ISSUE in 1870s New Orleans. After that, the episode starts smacking us around the face introducing it’s familiar actors playing new roles; Taissa Farmiga as a young witch whose power causes her unfortunate lovers to die while bleeding profusely from every facial orifice, Sarah Paulson as the head of the secretive academy that protects the dwindling number of the supernatrually blessed, Lily Rabe as a fresh-faced witch from the Deep South whose burned alive for her powers, and Frances Conroy as an eccentric grandmother (“I’m simply mad for tartan!”).

Bitchcraft really acts as a world-building episode; we meet the other students at Paulson’s Magic nursery (Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sibide, etc), and learn the place these people hold in society. While most are forced into hiding their powers (“I’M A HUMAN VOODOO DOLL!”), there are some who embrace them, exploit them and live through them.

One of this number is Jessica Lange. It’s difficult to explain how I feel about Lange without being reduced to guttural howls of delight, but suffice to say she once again dominates every second of her screentime. The first shot of her character-a heeled foot stepping out of a car, followed by a crane shot where we can only see her umbrella and her arching shadow-defines it perfectly. She’s sexy, self-assured, darkly hilarious and oozes the sort of charisma Clooney can only dream of. How this show has hung onto her I’ll never know; but I am so glad they did.

Back the episode. Once again, AHS seems to be setting itself for another series full of utterly spectacular female characters. One of the running themes of Coven’s predecessors was the complete lack of women as victims-almost every single wronged woman has taken her fate into her own hands and come out on top. Bitchcraft has a few instances of this; for example, Roberts’ pouty movie star is gang raped at a party (in a scene which could have been horrendously crass and upsetting, but was handled subtley and allowed Emma her dignity). Afterwards, the perpetrators flee onto a bus to make there escape and, as a distraught Farmiga looks on, Roberts’ simply steps into frame and waves her hand at the bus, causing it to flip over and kill almost everyone on board. Later, Farmiga’s Zoe uses her special Jedi skills to rape one of the surviving boys to death in hospital. When Lange is refused a substance meant to restore her youth, she simply sucks the life out of the offending scientist. Whatever you think of what they’re doing-and it’s often violent, frightening, or downright horrific-these are a bunch of women you do not fuck with. And I can get behind that for this series.

Jessica Lange Line Reading of the Week: During an argument with Sarah Paulson (also her daughter, by the way), she delivers a shudderingly caustic “Don’t make me drop a house on you”.

Murphchuck and Horror Stories

I’ve just finished watching the entire series of American Horror Story. I’m deeply skeptical about horror TV shows, usually, because tension is difficult enough to maintain over an hour and a half movie, let alone a ten-part serial. And I was even more deeply skeptical when I discovered that the makers of Glee, Ryan Murphy and Brad Flachuck, (Murphchuck?) were the brains behind the piece. Apropos to nothing, the title also looks like a placeholder name the schedulers forgot to change before release. And this didn’t fill me with faith either.

The first series is set in the “Murder House”- a house with a horrific history that is revealed bit by gruesome bit- the story focusing on the Harmons, the new owners, and their relationship with the houses questionable past occupants and their new neighbors, the Langdons. The cast wavers between decent and utterly superb- a particular nod to Jessica Lange as the Southern-Belle-from-Hell Constance Langdon, a soaring psycho bitch with just the right balance of sugared sarcasm and genuine threat. Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears remain my favourite duo, the fabulously catty Quinto and alpha-gay Sears playing a heart-wrenching couple coming apart at the seams but trapped in a dysfunctional relationship when the horror of the house takes hold. Most of the main parts are thankless but solid- that said, I love Evan Peters as Tate Langdon, the last word in gorgeous teen hearthrob madmen. Though every time I look directly at him, my eyes ache a little with his beauty, making it difficult to properly judge his performance.

What really sold me on the first series was the gleeful way it ascribed to all the old horror archetypes-the haunted house, scores of creepy children, the mysterious backstories and Something in the Basement. But the writing is solid and throws in handfuls of black humour to keep the show properly entertaning, and the Charlie Clouster (SAW YEAH SAW!) theme is simply superb. All in all, it’s an outstanding season with a satisfyingly chilling payoff.

The second season is, bravely, completely unrelated to the first, set in an asylum in the 1960s. It’s literally impossible to even give a comprehensive outline of the plot without peppering it with spoilers, but suffice to say someone ends up wrongly imprisoned in the deeply questionable Briarcliff Mental Institute. Much of the cast returned for this series, with Jessica Lange and Zachary Quinto being the stand-outs once again, with Quinto getting a much meatier, much darker, much more understated role that he absolutely nails (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words). Bizarelly, Chloe Sevigny pops up playing a irresistible nymphomaniac who suffers a terrible fate at the hands of the deranged Doctor Arden (a patchy but screen-dominating James Cromwell). I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the second second series as much as the first, as I was far more interested in Quinto’s Oliver Thresdon than the writers seemed to be. But I’m hopeful for the third, especially after the Mother Superior of the series Jessica Lange has been confirmed tor return, and Kathy Bates (yes, THAT Kathy Bates) will be joining the cast too. Glee is Dead; Long Live Horror Story.