Friday, 19 October 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM review – 'Welcome to Briarcliff' (season 2 premiere)

Friday, 19 October 2012

written by Tim Minear / directed by Bradley Buecker

I watched all of American Horror Story last year; mostly out of a grim fascination than any attachment to the thin characters or their convoluted storylines. From two of the sick minds that brought us Glee (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk), it was always apparent they only have two settings: "too much" and "much too much". Subtlety isn't inherent better than tactlessness, but AHS always felt too overblown to become genuinely scary. Frightening events happened very regularly (most paying homage to films like The Exorcist and The Shining), but did it ever get under your skin and make it difficult to sleep at night? I don't think so. AHS threw so much at viewers that it was difficult to care about anyone or anything, as the show instead became something of an endurance that was amplifying its own shortcomings. There were a handful of great episodes (I remember really enjoying half its Halloween two-parter), some enjoyable performances (such as the superb Jessica Lange), and the occasional successful surprise (like the daughter having died weeks ago), but in general terms I found AHS an unwieldy disappointment.

However, I wholeheartedly approve of how Murphy and Falchuk have chosen to keep AHS fresh. Rather than try and continue season 1's haunted house storyline with the dysfunctional Harmon family, somehow, each season's going to tell a brand spooky story with different characters (although many original cast members will be returning in new roles). Given the issues with many US dramas about longevity, AHS deserves respect for taking a brave decision to turn itself into an anthology.

"Welcome to Briarcliff" introduced season 2's new era, location, and characters: the Briarcliff Manor Sanatorium, circa 1964, presided over by heartless Sister Jude (Lange) and her half-crazy rival Dr Arthur Arden (James Cromwell). Into this oppressive setting comes two sane people: Kit Walker (Evan Davies), a gas station attendant whose black wife Alma (Britne Oldford) was abducted by hostile aliens... who then appear to have framed Kit as a serial killer, earning him the nickname "Bloody Face" (on account of how he was caught wearing a girl's flayed skin as a face-mask); and lesbian reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who arrives to write a story about the notorious Bloody Face, but finds herself getting committed by her own lover (Clea DuVall). Inside, there's also a variety of eerie and deeply unsettling characters—most notably nymphomaniac Shelly (Chloë Sevigny), wild child Grace (Lizzie Brocheré), and a woman who appears to have stepped straight out of Todd Browning's seminal Freaks.

It's hard to know what to say about this premiere, really. "Welcome to Briarcliff" was certainly enjoyable in the sense of meeting a bunch of new characters and trying to determine what the overall direction's going to be—seeing as it was bookended with a scene of two modern-day lovers encountering supernatural violence while snooping around the abandoned asylum. It could focus on Kit trying to escape the asylum and prove his innocence, although it's hard to see how that can be achieved given "the truth" involves evil aliens that seemingly abduct and skin girls, then pin the blame on a male abductee! Perhaps Kit really is crazy and we shouldn't put any faith in scenes where he was taken aboard a flying saucer and probed Fire in the Sky-style by nasty ETs? Or we might follow plucky journalist Lana, who's definitely guilty of nothing more than making an enemy of twisted Sister Jude.

The old problems of AHS still persist from last season. It's just so dogged about cramming in so much that the end result's a cacophony of sounds, images and half-baked ideas. The odd freaky moment may land a punch, and Lange is fantastic as a nun who wears devil-red lingerie under her habit and fantasises about shagging her boss, Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), but I still arrived at the end credits with a feeling of apathy. There's a seriously scary show here somewhere, because it's conceptually strong and smartly directed, but too much feels aimed at teenagers who see more merit in Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than Tobe Hooper's original.

American Horror Story chases down every horror cliché it can think of, redoes all the scary movie tropes, and lacks enough of its own originality to make that feel acceptable. Still, if only because season 2 lacks the intensely boring Harmon family, I'm slightly more optimistic about how the rest of this year's going to play out...

17 October 2012 / FX