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Chilling 'American Horror Story' avoids cheap thrills

FX

By Brianne Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 9, 2011

It’s a beautiful house — really! — and quite a steal. Complete with creaking doors, peeling wallpaper, clouds of cobwebs decking the corners and pickled baby heads lining the basement shelves, the centerpiece of FX’s new show, “American Horror Story,” puts Barbie’s Dream House to shame. With a charm so subtle that one would swear it didn’t exist, what’s not to love?

Reeling from the tragic miscarriage of their son, Vivien (Connie Britton, “Friday Night Lights”) and Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott, “The Practice”) seek a fresh start in Los Angeles with teenage daughter Violet (relative newcomer Taissa Farmiga). However, the family dynamic quickly disintegrates. Unable to forgive her husband for sleeping with one of his students, Vivien becomes cold and distant, choosing instead to find companionship in a new dog.

Resentful of this rejection, Ben represses his urge to release his sexual frustration by remaining “closer to the family” through his at-home psychiatry practice. Violet is aware of the tension between her parents, and isolates herself socially, adopting the apathetic stance of a modern-day Wednesday Addams. Within the first week, strange neighbors and macabre hallucinations work their way into the old house, re-hashing the family’s inner demons while providing a haunting past of their own.

Each character introduced is stranger than the last and undoubtedly less likable, dragging the story down in a miserable mix of the living and the not-so-living. As if they float through the walls, the strangers appear at every turn. It’s difficult to keep track of every ghoulish visitor, not to mention their secrets and predictions of death. Doesn’t anybody lock their doors anymore?

Not only are viewers subjected to Vivien’s constant complaining and repeated rejection of her desperate husband’s sexual advances, but they also receive several shots of a naked Ben, sobbing post-masturbation or swaying over a fireplace, wearing nothing but a glazed facial expression (but hey, maybe that’s not so bad after all). Though Britton is by far the most believable of the bunch, McDermott’s portrayal of a man fighting to maintain his morality is both endearing and exhausting.

Compared to the dreadfully whiny Harmon family, the kooky cast of murderers and an old-maid-turned-vampy-mistress seems like a sinister joy. The show is most fascinating when it's focused on Ben’s patient, Tate (Evan Peters, “Invasion”), a twitchy teenage boy whose murderous fantasies and morbid attitude are a quirky and fascinating contrast to the family.

“American Horror Story” is an unexpected treat among hordes of recent, predictable slasher films. The show acts almost as a celebration — or at least an acknowledgement — of less literal horrors: the darker side of the human mind and its desires. Scenes of destruction are embraced by cheery tunes and the childish tinkling of bells. The story plays off of the characters’ real fears as the house feeds into their desires through ambiguous latex-wearing figures and seductive apparitions. The ghostly strangers that haunt the house become a manifestation of the Harmons’ inner demons.

“American Horror Story” encompasses the gore and suspense of bloody classics, but it instills a deeper, more personal fear than its predecessors. Miscarriage, infidelity, self-mutilation, bullies, temptation — these are the real horrors, the ones that surpass fiction and infiltrate viewers’ homes.


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