The Cutprice Guignol

The Ninth Year: The Haunting of Swill House

Tag: Kathy Bates

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: 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

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.