The Cutprice Guignol

The Ninth Year: The Haunting of Swill House

Tag: frances conroy

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: 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”.