AMERICAN HORROR STORY Series Premiere Review

     October 5, 2011

With a title as generic as American Horror Story, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that this new horror venture from Glee creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk contains plenty of horror clichés that merely add up to an amalgamation of various horror movies thrown together in a blender with the story of a dysfunctional and troubled family serving as the weak backbone to link them all together. Hoping for a series that’s twisted, scary and edgy, like the creepy S&M ridden ads have implied, this new endeavor from FX is visually interesting, but otherwise flat, plain and lacking any substantial evidence of direction towards anything original that hasn’t been recycled through horror films countless times before. More thoughts on the series premiere of American Horror Story after the jump.

american-horror-story-imageBeginning with an ominous house and a strange little girl with Down Syndrome warning a group of red head twins of the terror within the abandoned residence, the series starts with a familiar setting and tone and scene from dozens of horror films. As the adolescent boys run through the disheveled house, smashing glass, walls and more, a freshly dead animal catches their attention and leads them into the basement where an unknown terror lurks and really gives the kids the comeuppance they’ve earned from destroying the house even more.

But our real story begins years later as wife Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) walks in on her psychiatrist husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) having an affair with one of his students. In an effort to leave behind the demons of their broken marriage, they move to a new house along with their smart but troubled daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, daughter of actress Vera Farmiga), and of course it’s the same house from our jarring opening sequence. It is here that Ben and Vivien are trying to salvage their marriage and rebuild the trust and love that once existed between them. But Ben’s therapy sessions with a strange, mentally unstable boy (who takes a liking to the equally misguided Violet), combined with an aggressively friendly neighbor (Jessica Lange) and her nosy daughter (the little girl from the opening scenes all grown up), and some strange behavior that the house seems to be instigating, this doesn’t seem like a place where a broken family can mend.

dylan-mcdermott-american-horror-story-imageThe terrors of the house are completely derivative from the seemingly possessed actions and perceptions of Ben, to Vivien’s experiences with the cabinets and drawers in her house suddenly all being opened upon turning her back for a split second. In addition, the strange creature/half-human lurking in the basement and a foreboding man in a suit with a half-burned and mutilated face only deliver generic scares from making people uneasy or just appearing suddenly. Visually, standard jump cuts and Dutch angles add another sense of disorientation and discomfort, but they can’t hide the fact that there’s little substance in the script or even an idea of what the series will offer besides a generic haunted house and scarred family. While the final moments of the pilot serves an interesting revelation that could have some interesting consequences, I found myself wondering what the point of all the typical horror elements will actually be. Yes, I’m wondering where it’s leading, but not in a way that I care or want to see more beyond the pilot. That’s simply because I’ve seen The Amittyville Horror, The Shining, and plenty of other films that have obviously inspired this series.

Honestly, what the show seems to be attempting is a presentation of the American Horror Story that the title touts, but not in reference to the aforementioned familiar elements of the horror genre. The real “horror story” here is likely meant to be this broken family trying to start over, as the demons each of them have inside their heart and mind manifest themselves through the house. Depending on what kind of practical effect the terrors of the house will inflict upon the family, the pilot doesn’t exactly set up what problems this family will have to endure outside of cheap scares that we’ve all seen before. Essentially, American Horror Story seems to be Murphy and Falchuk’s attempt to do something that is the exact opposite of Glee. With no humor, a creepy setting, strange and foreboding characters, grim imagery and some bold, sexually provocative scenes even for cable, it achieves that goal, but unfortunately like their successful musical series, it features only a glossy surface emulating the horror genre that fails to truly engage the viewer. A second episode could change my mind, but if it’s more of the same random scares and suspense splattered throughout a dysfunctional family straight out of a dramatic indie film, then I’ll pass on a full season.

American Horror Story premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.