Friday, 11 October 2013

Review: FX's AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN – 'Bitchcraft'

Friday, 11 October 2013

written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk | directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

American Horror Story's first season was an increasingly tiresome collection of horror film clichés, while its asylum-set second was a fun but tiring mishmash of freakishness. Both had their ups and downs, but this FX drama's sheer bravado has proven to be an intoxicating cocktail. The ace up its sleeve (that prevents AHS outstaying its welcome like most Ryan Murphy shows) is that each season tells an entirely separate story with using largely the same actors in different roles. It can't be overstated how much this helps matters, and I'm pleased to report that the premiere of season 3 suggests the writers are closer to nailing what's possible with AHS.

I don't have a lot of time for witches in supernatural fiction. They tend to either be cartoon-y stereotypes (Macbeth's cauldron-stirring crones, or Wizard of Oz's green-faced broom-flyers), or sexy teenage goths with tattoos and piercings. It's hard to find a fresh angle, but I rather enjoyed what AHS's come up with: a modern-day finishing school for witches, quickly evoking Harry Potter when young Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) is effectively told "you're a witch, Zoe" by Hagrid analog Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), before being sent by train to Mrs Robideaux's School for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans, to meet headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson).

Zoe, doomed to remain a virgin because sex causes lover's heads to explode, soon befriends her magical classmates, who each have their own specific gift—ranging from the unusual and unexpected (transferring pain onto others like a "human voodoo doll") to the humdrum and obvious (telekinesis, clairvoyance, blah-blah).

There are signs Ryan Murphy's bag of tricks are close to exhausted, as some of this premiere's character dynamics are similar to ones we've seen before. The excellent Jessica Lange returns as Fiona Goode (a 'Supreme' witch with a smorgasbord of powers) and, rather like her character in Asylum, she's in a struggle for control of the school with daughter Cordelia. Farmiga and Evan Peters (now playing honourable frat boy Kyle) even fall in love, much as they did in season 1. True Blood's Denis O'Hare also makes a retur, swapping 'creepy burns victim' for 'creepy butler'.

If nothing else, AHS can be relied on for unsubtle, gruesome scenes and unsettling ideas. "Bitchcraft" opens by introducing us to the merciless Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who in the 1830s tried to maintain her youth by painting her face in the blood of the captive black slaves she viciously tortured in her attic. It's easy to shock viewers with grisly ideas and graphic imagery, but it also felt like Coven has a story to tell. Oh, and it's extra scary to know Delphine LaLaurie is a historical figure, not something from the writers imaginations.

Unlike the previous two seasons, where flashbacks mostly existed for their inherent entertainment value (oooh, not it's 60 years earlier!), it seems there's a reason for the story jumping back to the 19th-century in Coven... especially when it becomes clearer that modern Fiona (who also covets youth) has a relationship with Delphine. Was Delphine the Supreme witch from her era? If so, can two Supremes exist at once? Are these women related by blood? Or do they just share a common goal to stay looking young?

I'm also glad the scope has narrowed compared to season 2 (with its broad array of heroes and villains), as Zoe is obviously the audience proxy; someone for us to follow as she navigates the secret world of witches, secrets, and magic. There's a chance the story will soon broaden and push her into the background, because AHS has proven to be so unruly you can't accurately predict anything. If the writers get bored with a storyline, or paint themselves into a corner with some characters, I fully expect Coven to go completely off the rails in six episodes. I just hope it maintains some kind of tight centre, because one thing that spoiled Asylum was its flop ending when the writers essentially concluded the story a weeks before the actual finale.

Overall, I have high hopes for American Horror Story: Coven. The magical backdrop gives the show a lighter feel, which should alleviate the show's tendency to get oppressively dour and relentlessly dark. Not that there's anything especially light-hearted about a Hollywood actress-turned-witch being gang-raped and exacting Carrie-esque revenge by flipping their getaway bus. But the general set-up is reminiscent of X-Men (the discerning fan's choice for Storm, Angela Bassett, even guest-stars), I love the atmosphere of its New Orleans setting, I've always enjoyed watching these actors have ghoulish fun, the lore' and history of its witches was entertaining, it laid seeds for future developments well, I responded to the strong female perspective throughout, and "Bitchcraft" managed to introduce and explain lots of things without making the hour feel cluttered.

  • This series loves to pay homage to a lot of sources, but I had to wonder if Fiona's line "I'll have what she's having" was an intentional nod to rom-com When Harry Met Sally, or not.
  • Did you spot the nod to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, in the scene where Zoe and Kyle locked eye through an ice sculpture (instead of a fish tank in that 1996 movie)? Of course you did, sorry.
  • I'm not sure if the moment when Fiona regained her beauty and gazed at her young visage in a mirror was achieved using a different actress who resembles Jessica Lange circa 1975, or with visual trickery on Lange's own face, but it was very well done.
9 October 2013 | FX