Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: American Horror Story: Asylum "Welcome to Briarcliff"

Non Spoiler Review:
American Horror Story returns with a new story and new characters (but, luckily for us, with several of the same cast members). Starting in present day a newlywed couple on a horror honeymoon tour investigate Briarcliff Asylum. Flash back to the early 1960s we see the asylum in its hay day, run by the Catholic Church under the authority of Sister Jude (Jessica Lange embarking on what should be a new iconic performance) and Father Timothy (Joseph Fiennes).

Rounding out the cast is an assortment of inmates extracted from Silence of the Lambs, a nosy reporter looking to investigate new arrival Bloody Face, a doctor eager to experiment on pretty much everyone, heavy duty themes like religion versus science, civil rights and homosexual discrimination. Asylum starts off with a very full plate.

But it all worked, at least in this first episode, presenting the usual American Horror Story onslaught of crazy events, sex and outrageous characters. It's created enough intrigue to promise an exciting season, and hopefully it succeeds in leaving us with another memorable storyline.

Spoilers Now!
A newly married couple (on a haunted honeymoon tour) explore the empty ruins of Briarcliff Manor. As Teresa fills us in, the mansion was built in 1908 as the largest tuberculous ward on the east coast. Bodies were shuttled out in an underground tunnel. The Catholic Church bought it in 1962 and turned it into a sanitarium for the criminally insane, with serial killer Bloody Face as their most famous resident. 

They attempt to have sex in the infirmary, but Teresa freaks out when she hears a noise, so they continue exploring. She urges Leo to put his hand through the food slot of a dark cell to take a photo of what's inside. He does so and his arm is abruptly torn off.

1964. At his gas station, Kit is surprised by his friend Billy and friends who want to borrow his gun to scare a guy who messed with a friend's sister. Billy tries to intimidate him and creates an awkward scene (making reference to chocolate) before leaving. Kit returns home to his new wife, Alma. Given she's black they haven't told anyone they've been married, but he wants to be open about it. She doesn't. 

After some pre-dinner sex Alma goes off to get it ready. The radio goes to static and Kit sees a bright light. He runs outside, expecting Billy, only to find the light in the sky and Alma screaming. He runs back in to mayhem and is levitated to the ceiling, falls down and has a flash of some creature operating on him.

Investigative reporter Lois Lane Lana Winters arrives at the asylum for an appointment with Sister Jude. She's escorted by Sister Mary Eunice among an assortment of inmates, and up a spiral staircase. Jude is busy shaving a woman's (Shelley) head as punishment.

Jude explains Shelley was brought in as a nymphomaniac, but Jude believes mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin. To her, Father Timothy Howard is the real visionary of the asylum. Most of their wards come from the gutter.

Then Eunice bursts in to whisper that the bad person will arrive any minute. Lana thinks that's the maniac Bloody Face who is being admitted that day. Jude realizes her interview has been a pretence to see this new arrival. Jude explains the killer is being turned over to them until it's determined he's fit to stand trial. Bloody Face turns out to be Kit.

Jude sits with him once he's been checked in and strapped in to his bed. He protests his innocence for killing anyone. His story about little green men doesn't fly with her. When she asks if her dark meat slid off the bones easier than his other victims, he spits in her face. So she proceeds to beat him.

Shelley tires to flirt with Kit in the common room. He meets another girl, Grace, who fills him in on the rules and says she isn't crazy. As long as the common room is open, the same song has to play. He quickly annoys the wrong people and gets beat up. When Jude arrives everyone cowers, but Kit gets the blame and is ruffed up and thrown into solitary. Grace brings him food (she's on kitchen detail). She reveals she's accused of chopping up her family but maintains her innocence.

Jude storms in to see Dr. Arden who gives it back as good as she can give it. He is a firm believer in the power of science (and shows her a new species of plant he created by bombarding it with gamma rays). And he wants her to stay out of his business. Four patients have disappeared under his supervision and she demands an explanation. He confesses the bodies were cremated. She finds it interesting the ones who died don't have families, and vows to bring what he's hiding out in the open. She'll always win against the patriarchal male.

Lana is excited to find a story at Briarcliff but her editor doesn't share her vision. She thinks it's her big shot, and her lover, school teacher Wendy, is fully behind her. 

Jude has dinner with the handsome Father Timothy whom she has very unchristian fantasies about. She wants to know where he found Dr. Arden. Timothy counters he was sent there by people better equipped to judge his godliness than her. He seems to see science as a part of religion, but she's more black and white. He shares his plans—to be cardinal of New York—and vows to bring her with him as mother superior. And eventually he could be pope. That's why he needs her to be a team player and the doctor needs full oversight over his domain as she has over hers. 

In the woods, Eunice is bringing a pale of meat, as per Arden's instruction. She leaves it and runs right into Lana, who has been sneaking around the estate. She tells them they have to go as they hear animals in the trees. 

Kit wakes up as Arden comes in to sedate him and take him away. He's brought to Arden's laboratory. He believes the secret of the human psyche resides in the brain, and he plans to uncover the darkness in Kit's. Kit flashes back to his abduction. Alma cried for his help. But she was found skinned. Arden finds a lump in his neck and removes a bizarre implant that abruptly sprouts legs and jumps off the table.

Eunice brings Lana in through the tunnels, refusing to say what she was feeding. Lana suggests if she help her look around she won't tell Sister Jude. Eunice takes her through the men's ward and leaves her there when she gets hit with feces from one of the inmates. Shelley tells her Kit was taken to solitary. When Jude arrives, Lana hides herself in a room until she leaves. She proceeds to solitary, peering through the food slot and is grabbed by something.

Jude later berates Eunice for her stupid behaviour and her misplaced trust. Instead of defending herself, Eunice begs to punished and beaten, but Jude, slightly taken aback, orders her to smarten up.

Lana wakes up to Jude's face and strapped to her bed. She apparently took a tumble and the nun informs her she's got a long recovery ahead. Jude has already visited Wendy, who had wanted to see her, though she's not family.

Flashing back to her visit with Wendy, Jude points out she has no legal standing to visit and suggests that as a teacher Wendy was never aware that Lana was a homosexual. Lana threatened her facility under false pretenses and she intends to see she gets her inside look at her mental ward. She can do it discreetly or by exposing their relationship. Jude suggests Wendy's sworn statement is more than enough to remand Lana into her custody, but a scandal will work just as well. A torn Wendy agrees to sign it to keep her job.

Jude shows Lana the statement and promises to cure her. Eunice then brings Jude some keys she took and she finds Arden in a supposed vacant room disinfecting the chamber. Jude can smell something has been living in there (and the walls are covered in scratches). Jude vows to ferret out what he's been doing. 

Back in the present, Leo is bleeding out and Teresa tries to get him to the car. She rushes to get his phone but finds the doors locked, then runs right into Bloody Face and screams.

The Verdict:
The second season kicked off with suitable AHS insanity—there's a lot thrown at the audience, from an assortment of interesting new characters, possible alien abduction, serial killers, abuse, as well as heavier themes—religion and science, and treating homosexuality as a disease. I think the 1960s setting is going to really help explore a host of issues the present day couldn't. But we still get the Teresa/Leo storyline (for now, at least) in modern day to hopefully provide a tie in by series end. So there's little to comment on as far as direction until we get a sense of where it goes from here. But I definitely like what I see.

Jessica Lange's new accent is going to take a few episodes to get used to, but she's already defined an exciting new character. While not a fan of Joseph Feinnes' overboard acting (Flashforward, Camelot...), he behaved particularly restrained this week (for now). It's also nice to see actresses who previously had minor roles in the first season taking center stage here (Lana and Eunice).

A lot of questions about the guilt and innocence of the various inmates remain up in the air—Shelley, Grace and, of course, Kit. Is he the same Bloody Face we see in the present day, and was he truly abducted or is he actually crazy and killed Alma? The spiderlike implant, however, seems to suggest those aliens exist. But not just appears Dr. Arden is a neo-Dr. Moreau by creating wild things in the woods around Briarcliff. 

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