A 'Horror Story' so good, you'll freak

FX

By Catherine Sulpizio, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 9, 2014

Guys, “American Horror Story” is officially back and better than ever. For such a dark show, it has a real knack for bringing glee to its fan base — but horror lovers everywhere should rejoice over “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” because it looks to be the scariest season yet.

American Horror Story: Freak Show


A
Season Four Premiere
FX
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.


Let me take a step back for a second and put on my critic’s cap. Part of “American Horror Story” ’s flair for fear is that it refuses to really take itself seriously even as it ambitiously barrels through six or seven plot points per season. The dizzying maze of storylines tends to keep a viewer on edge even if they don’t all come to fruition, and where some horror maintains solemnity even as it verges on parody, “American Horror Story” swings from the chandeliers. It holds no subject sacrilegious — from school shootings to Nazis to slavery, “American Horror Story” shocks equally by its daring to really go there. Last season, “AHS” overstepped itself with a race-focused storyline that’s problem wasn’t irreverence but its premature disappearance by end of the season; Murphy has a tendency to blow full steam ahead with some storylines then mysteriously discard them for reasons unknown. The whirlpool strategy undeniably succeeds in keeping its fans coming though, as last year’s premiere peaked with 5.54 million viewers.

However, there is a method to Murphy’s excessive madness. “American Horror Story” really knows how to scare: as much as content drives fear, the formal elements are integral in heightening it. On Wednesday’s premiere episode, the camera pounces from high fish-angle-lens shots that make us feel like a fly on the wall to shaky P.O.V. shots of murder victims; it cowers in the corner as villains loom over us, the camera careens through forests and hallways with dizzying speed — and it switches between all of these shots too quickly, with music a hair too loud, lighting a shade too lurid (or blood red). In short, “American Horror Story” uses a lot of classic techniques to effectively induce horror. Narrative plot arcs can be sloppy or ridiculous sometimes, but the technical tightness of the show consistently grounds it.

“Monsters Among Us,” the first episode of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” is set in 1952 Jupiter, Florida in a struggling freak show. Florida jokes aside, I was doubtful this would be a scary premise. “A homicidal clown?” I laughed when I heard about the signature seasonal monster, alas, I believed myself immune to the scary clown trope. Forgive me, Ryan Murphy, but I was so wrong. Unlike other seasons’ villains, “AHS” wastes no time introducing the monster, who with the smart costuming and makeup is insanely disturbing. For all its meticulous crafting of fear, “AHS” knows there’s something uncanny about simply seeing a monster in plain day — remember the last minutes of the episode in “True Detective” where we see Reggie Ledoux stalking the plains with his gas mask and machete? It’s a fear that wallops you in your primordial core, seeing a creature so discordant with a familiar environment, yet threateningly at ease in it. We relegate our fear of monsters to their slow emergence from the shadows, but sometimes it’s the clown traipsing through a pastoral picnic scene that delivers the panic. The camera’s wide lens works well here, it highlights the surreal tension between clown and landscape.

Regardless, if “AHS” is so confidently delivering this powerhouse of a monster in the first episode, I’m going to assume they have some even scarier tricks up their sleeve. The rest of the episode introduces us to the ragtag world of “Freak Show.” Like the other seasons, our protagonists dance the line between heroes and villains. Do we root for them or run from them? Jessica Lange (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”) is back and more fabulous than ever as Elsa Mars, circus ringleader, with a Marlene Dietrich wardrobe and a pinch of manipulation à la Blanche DuBois. With her GIF-able quips and Instagram-worthy hat-wear, it makes sense Lange is the social media tour de force of “AHS.” Mars is just a new spin of the femme fatale Lange dazzles as every season, but that’s part of the fun. “AHS” has assembled a core cast that we, if not exactly love, have built loyal ties with — it’s a wink to the fans and way of maintaining continuity in an anthology format.

The episode also introduces Sarah Paulson (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) as Bette/Dot, a two-headed woman (or women, I’m not sure of the etiquette), which is yet another example of the technical rigor “AHS” is capable of. Lange usually pulls the spotlight from Paulson, who takes the more reserved characters, so I’m excited to see her take up a little more room (literally) this season. Bearded lady Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates, “Misery”) is wonderful and so is her son Jimmy (Evan Peters, “Kick Ass”) with lobster claw syndrome (ectrodactyly) — his condition pays the rent in the licentious way only Ryan Murphy can dream up.

As a side note, “American Horror Story” positively revels in Catholic Guilt-tripping even the most secular of us, with its constant marriage of sex and fear. Besides moonlighting as a David Bowie cover singer, Mars runs a side film production company whose business model relies heavily on date-rape drugs and slut-shaming. Perhaps this will be one of the moral seeds Murphy loves to scatter through every season, though the obvious is the freak angle. If there’s one major critique, it’s the superimposed morality Murphy insists on less and less overtly through the seasons, the karmic comeuppance that restores order in the end. “Murder House” and “Asylum” handled it perhaps effectively, but “Coven” had some truly tasteless moments (though Anne Frank’s cameo in “Asylum” can’t be excluded) that weren’t justified by Murphy’s half-hearted attempts to reconcile racism. Regardless, “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is a riveting first episode. Even after three seasons, “AHS” still retains a talent for lassoing scare, social critique and camp into one dazzling show.

- Jessica Lange hat count: 1 Dietrich-esque fedora, 1 toque hat with decorative plume.