Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: American Horror Story "Pilot"

Non Spoiler Review:
FX and the creators of Glee have brought what could be a groundbreaking series in the genre of television horror. American Horror Story assembles an amazing cast, including Jessica Lange, Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Denis O'Hare, to deliver something unlike anything seen on television since Twin Peaks.

The pilot introduces the Harmon family, on the heels of husband and father Ben's marital infidelity, and his wife's miscarriage, picking up and moving to Los Angeles to start their life over. They get an awesome deal on a 1920s mansion, which has suffered a string murders and suicides (both mentioned in passing and shown in the teaser). Once moved in, Ben and Vivien meet an assortment of odd and frightening characters, and their lives begin to be affected by the darkness within the house.

The first episode delivered a promising series premiere, and I was riveted by the characters and the direction (jittery cuts, great musical choices and sudden, unexpected horror). It's got a very stylistic look and a jarring opening credits sequence. The Harmons are extremely flawed, but they all (at least for the moment) are kind of likable, and I can cheer them on to whatever kind of happiness they might find in this demonic mansion.

American Horror Story feels inspired by David Lynch, but with some Marilyn Manson influence thrown in. It's got a very strong and enviable ensemble cast, with a healthy mix of old-fashioned scares, coupled with very disturbing elements, and a tension that remains elevated for the whole hour.  If the pilot is any indication, it will easily become one of my top three favorite shows (the others currently being Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead). I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre. 

Spoilers Now!
In 1978 two ginger boys prepare to wreck the ruins of an old abandoned mansion, but are warned by a little girl with Downs Syndrome outside that "You'll die in there". Defiant, they go on a smashing spree with their bats, ending in the basement where they find a wall full of jars with various body parts. Ginger One loses his brother for a moment, and when he shines the light on him, his throat is slit. Then an evil looking child-thing runs out of the shadows and kills him, as well.

Next is Vivien Harmon, getting an examination months after a horrible miscarriage, and reluctantly agreeing to take some hormones to get her body back into shape. She returns home and hears noises, thinking there's an intruder. She grabs a knife and calls 911. Only she finds her husband having sex, and she slashes his arm.

When next we see Vivien, she's much less adversarial and travelling with her husband (and psychiatrist) Ben and daughter Violet, across country from Boston to Los Angeles to start over following his infidelity and her miscarriage. They get shown the 1920s mansion in question which was owned by a couple of fancy gentlemen who meticulously restored every detail. Unfortunately, as the realtor is loath to mention, they're dead from a murder-suicide in the house, which is why the place is on the market for a song. Violet immediately suggests they take it. Ben also plans to operate his practice from out of the house, too.

Moving in, the family's not back to normal at all. Vivien is frigid towards Ben, and Violet resents the focus on the miscarried son. Violet's first day at school goes awry when Leah, the fanatic anti-smoker, freaks out and picks a fight with her for having a cigarette.

Vivien notices the wallpaper is peeling, and it's actually covering a mural of a hellish scene. She's startled by the grown up Downs girl telling her she's going to die in here, and neighbour Constance walks in, apologizing for Adelaide barging into the house.

Constance embarks on a monologue about her life as a failed actress from Virginia, and a career ruined by the birth of her mongoloid. Vivien's not impressed that both just walked in uninvited and tries to shoe her off. But Constance brought her sage to cleanse the house of bad spirits.

Vivien later walks through the house into the attic with her sage, only to find a disturbing black rubber kink outfit that scares the hell out of her. Ben finds it amusing, but gets rid of it at her request and puts it in the trash.

Ben sees his first client, Tate, who has dreams of walking through school and killing his classmates (to save them from the world, he believes). He comes across Violet in the bathroom cutting herself, and tells her she's doing it all wrong if she wants to kill herself.

That night Ben gets up in his sleep and goes downstairs to light the fireplace. Vivien comes down and asks what he's doing. He asks if he's in a dream.

Vivien gets a visit from an older woman, Moira, who announces she's the housekeeper and has worked at the house for years. Vivien's not keen on it, but Moira comes in for some tea and manages to win her over. She found the bodies of the previous owners and cleaned up the mess, she explains. Ben comes in, but he sees Moira as a beautiful young woman and finds it incredible that Vivien wants to hire her given his penchant for infidelity. When Moira leaves he tries to make out with his wife again, but she pushes him away.

Tate is now hanging out with Violet and they commiserate about cutting themselves and their horrible lives. He learns about Ben's affair, as well as the miscarriage. Ben discovers them and tells him to leave. He forbids his daughter to go near him. 

Coming out of the shower, Ben walks in on Moira pleasuring herself. That prompts him to do the same and it's apparent he's still struggling with his compulsion for other women. He looks out the window and sees a deformed man looking up at him. He rushes outside but can't find any sign of him.

Vivien finds Adelaide in the house again and thinks she opened all the cupboards. The girl can see the two dead gingers behind her. Later, Constance comes by to bring her home and Vivien tries to convince the girl to stay out of her house. Adelaide protests the twins did it, not her. After an awkward conversation, they go to leave, but the dog snaps at Adelaide. Constance tells Vivian never to touch her child again.

Ben tries to report Tate as a dangerous student, but gets a visit from sexy Moira who cleans his office and attempts to seduce him. Violet happens by and sees her father with the old woman. He runs after her.

Vivien continues her project to remove the wallpaper from the disturbing mural. Ben makes another attempt to seduce her, but she turns him away again, so he flips out and they have a nasty knock down, drag out argument. She's trying to figure out how to forgive him for having sex with one of his students. He says he was hurting from the miscarriage as much as her, and instead of relying on him she got a dog. They haven't had sex in a year. He believes this place is their second chance. She gets physical with him and they end up having angry sex.

Violet gets in another fight with Leah at school but manages to do well for herself and burns her hand with the cigarette. Her mother notices she was in a fight, but Violet has no interest in confiding in her. She suggests her parents just get divorced rather than drag the family across the country, but Vivien says they still love one another.

Getting ready for bed, Viven sees someone in the rubber suit in the doorway. She appears to think it's Ben. When he says nothing, she decides he's just getting his kink on and has sex with him (!). The kink man says nothing and keeps the outfit on the whole time.

Except Ben is down in the kitchen lighting the gas stove. Vivien seems to see his face as the man is on top of her. Connie pulls Ben's hand away from the fire and tells him now is not his time, and "Enjoy the house." She directs him to go back to bed. Later he crawls back into bed with Vivien, who is still awake. She tells him she loves him.

Violet wants to get rid of Leah, so Tate suggests they scare her to death so she never touches her again. Violet approaches her and tells her she's got drugs (given Leah is a cokehead). Tate will cover the terrifying part.

Leah gets led down into the basement, and finds Tate waiting for her. A strobe light goes off and Tate starts acting crazy. Except he appears to be both on top of Leah and beside Violet. Amid the flashing light both girls can see the demon child trying to strangle Leah. It sees Violet and reaches out to her with a clawed hand. Violet gets the lights. Tate is still in his chair and Leah has a nasty gouge on her face and runs out. Violet is furious and wants to know what he did. She kicks Tate out.

Ben is out jogging when he finds himself pursued by someone in a suit. He eventually catches up to him and it's the man watching him in the window from before. He's seriously burned and declares "Your family is in danger!" His name is Larry Harvey, and he warns him he has to get out of the house.

He has brain cancer, and was already in jail—for murdering his family. He used to live in the house, and after six months heard voices. He killed his wife and two daughters by burning them alive. He doesn't remember how he got out of the fire, but he was seriously maimed. Larry asks if Ben's been sleepwalking, and suggests he read the transcript of his case. Ben threatens to have him committed and warns him to leave him alone. Larry smiles to himself as Ben runs away.

Moira catches Connie in Vivien's bedroom trying on her earrings. Moira tells her to leave, but Connie comments on the old whore acting the part of a moralistic prude and says when things go missing, they always blame the maid. "Don't make me kill you again," Connie tells her as she leaves (and apparently steals the earrings).

Vivien comes home to find a nervous Ben after his encounter with Larry. She tells him she's pregnant. Ben's elated, but Vivien looks worried.

The Verdict:
I'm hooked. There was so much to talk about after this premiere, it's tough to sort it all out. As I mentioned, I'm liking the Harmons, even Ben, despite their enormous flaws and damage. Ben and Vivien feel like a real married couple with a host of problems, and their big fight this week came across as quite genuine.

The whole cast is fantastic—Six Feet Under alumna Frances Conroy as (older) Moira really shines here, as well as Denis O'Hare as crazy Larry. We get such an over-the-top, engaging performance from Jessica Lange, Constance could already handle her own spin off. Her scene with Conroy was an amazing showcase for these two great actresses.

The opening teaser with the kids shows this horrific creature living in the basement. That in itself is creepy enough, without the rubber suit guy and a number of ghosts. I'm questioning some scenes which could be real or dreams. Was Vivien really so willing to sleep with the kink guy with no questions asked? It was almost as though she was tempting fate by not even talking to who she thought was Ben, perhaps as a way to punish him or get revenge. Now she likely has a demon baby in her tummy.

Adelaide appears to be friendly to the creature in the house. Is she good or bad, because right now she's playing the mischief-maker. How much does Connie know? What other murders have transpired there (at least seven by my count this week). What's the significance of all the baby photos in the opening credits and the jars or baby pieces?

Moira's appearance is one of the more bizarre aspects, and the most overtly supernatural character, given there's really no other way to explain what's going on with her. It's surprising how easily she ingratiates herself with the new owners (and that Ben and Vivien don't talk about her appearance at all). It remains to be seen how long they'll stretch out that before it becomes implausible. Connie's cryptic threat about killing her again leaves us with tantalizing questions.

Red hair appears to be a running theme (Moira, the ginger twins, Vivien), so it must have some significance. Fire is also popping up pretty much everywhere, as well as baby-related imagery.

That's really all I can comment on this week, given I'm already raving about the series and anxiously anticipating what could be in store for a full season if it can maintain this level of quality. I really hope American Horror Story finds success, given there's really no precedent for a true horror story for an ongoing series. 

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