What begins as an almost-threesome ends quickly in a cabin full of dead children, each missing an ear. This is the gory commencement of “American Horror Story: 1984,” the ninth installment in the long-running horror anthology series. True to its name, this season pays homage to the genre’s roots by harkening back to ’80s camp slashers like “Friday the 13th.” While it does borrow heavily from the Jason movies, that doesn’t make the show any less enjoyable.
The show follows five friends from an aerobics class in 1984. After one of them — Brooke (Emma Roberts, “Scream Queens”) — has a close encounter with real-life serial killer, the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez (Zach Villa, “Destroyer”), she joins the rest of the group as they become camp counselors at Camp Redwood. The camp had been closed down in 1970, due to the grisly murder from the opening scene, but has been reopened by one of the survivors. Each mile closer to camp gets creepier and creepier, as a strange hitchhiker is picked up and a mechanic tells the group they’re going to die. Then, of course, the camp killer escapes an asylum.
If any of these plot points sound familiar, they’re absolutely supposed to. “1984” is not incredibly original, but that’s part of its charm. The episode embraces and utilizes the tropes of classic horror with such panache and mirth that it becomes vividly bracing. In fact, the whole episode is appealing. The blood is bright red and the show’s intro features roller skates, leg warmers and staticky, VHS-style video. The show goes to great lengths to commit itself as completely as it can to capture the ’80s, and the effort pays off. The outfits, the voluminous hair, the cars and even the 1984 Olympics are weaved into the narrative seamlessly, allowing the show to emit an effortless, neon-tinged ambience.
The dialogue is not particularly stellar — and neither is the acting — but the show is so engaging and glamorous that it easily makes up for it. It doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack is good, but a little overhwelming at times. Rockwell’s synth-funk classic, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” sets the mood disturbingly well as the gang heads to camp. The buzzing, synthesized ambience makes the show moody and brooding. Occasionally, I wish the show would allow viewers the opportunity to be scared without music that cues them into it.
Be aware, this show is horrifyingly gory. Just as the show does not spare on aesthetic, it puts equal effort into ensuring there are copious amounts of blood. Eye-stabbings, literal body-crushings and hangings all make guest appearances as the characters are slowly introduced to torment. Not to give too much away, but a particular scene involving a suspended car is particularly gruesome. It isn’t that the show is particularly scary, but it certainly isn’t for those with weak stomachs.
The thing that has consistently made “American Horror Story” wonderful is the fresh batch of horror and tense storylines that get thought up each season. However, after “Asylum,” the show’s second installment, it became far too invested in itself, took itself too seriously and used cheap, disgusting horrors to disguise its lack of an interesting plot. “Coven” introduced a famed serial killer and slave-torturer whose appalling crimes were recreated with a disturbing amount of detail, while “Hotel” featured an unusual amount of excessive and unexplained torture.
Fortunately, “1984” does away with the unnecessary melodrama and vulgarity. The conventional plot, overt homages and ridiculous gore work well in the show’s favor. “1984” has easily made “American Horror Story” fun again. It’s very aware of what it is, and exploits that to the fullest. “American Horror Story” is still trying to shock you. Only this time, the show has figured it out how to, and it means to have fun with it.