The Cutprice Guignol

The Ninth Year: The Haunting of Swill House

Tag: Evan Peters

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.

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.

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.