The house where nightmares come true
Hallucinatory lure pushes boundaries in ‘Horror Story’
What a mess. What a hot, foolish, insane mess. So why watch “American Horror Story’’? How can you not watch a TV series whose big mystery involves the identity of a dude in a latex fetish suit? He shows up at the darkest of moments, the shining superhero of BDSM.
Last month, when “American Horror Story’’ premiered, I dismissed it as a sloppy pile of haunted house clichés. And I still think the show is a cliché dump, a remix of horror’s greatest hits, from the ghost twins (“Come play with us, Danny’’) in “The Shining’’ to the eating of brains in “Hannibal’’ and the devil fetus in “Rosemary’s Baby.’’ The generic title “American Horror Story’’ could easily double as the label on a file of familiar paranormal tropes.
But after seven weeks of the FX’s series, which airs Wednesday nights at 10, I’m far less willing to dismiss it. In fact, I can’t miss an episode. Creator Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story’’ is a fetchingly stylized barrage of shock imagery that bores itself into your mind scene by excessive scene, pickled baby limb by pickled baby limb. It has a bold hallucinatory lure that ultimately overpowers its stock situations (a hand under a table waiting to grab her ankle!) and lack of logic. About a house that’s trying to undo the Harmon family - Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) - the show grabs you like a troubled fever dream and doesn’t let go.
“American Horror Story’’ has almost no continuity - not a big surprise when you realize it’s from the guy who made “Glee’’ and “Nip/Tuck,’’ shows with absurdly inconsistent characters and plots. The time frames make little sense, as events in one sequence - Denis O’Hare as the Freddy Krueger-esque Larry, taunting Violet - don’t quite feed into the next. The reasoning behind who is a ghost and who isn’t seems inconsistent. And the motivation for the Harmons to remain in the violent house - which they somehow didn’t know was on a murder tour - are still feeble. I guess it all comes down to the vague fact that the house wants them to stay, just as the island had a mind of its own on “Lost.’’
But the show’s lack of logic, its rabid disconnection, still manages to create a kind of raw impact. “American Horror Story’’ pushes past the viewer’s critical faculties and aims straight for the subconscious - the nightmare level where the most sinister fears and desires lurk. No matter how much I roll my eyes while watching, no matter how much Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk disrespect their characters merely to serve stories and themes, my eyes always return to the screen for more cryptic spectacle. I already know that, years from now, the show’s mythology will wind up being a massive jumble, but still I watch.
And as it comes at your subconscious with ipecac-laced cupcakes and a lovely gazebo that doubles as a headstone, “American Horror Story’’ hits a deep cultural vein. The Harmons - they’re never going to find harmony - are the typical attractive TV family, except they are doomed. We’re watching the American family on a roller coaster ride that seems to be all downward, with no end of defilement, betrayal, and financial desperation. It’s like a weekly version of the movie “American Beauty,’’ with ghosts that are literal as well as psychological.
Any potential wholesomeness on the show becomes perverted. Mom - played, no less, by the actress who was the wholesome Tami Taylor in “Friday Night Lights’’ - is deceived into sex with the latex man, who seems to have wandered over from “Nip/Tuck’’ (and whose identity will be revealed tonight). Dad is a liar - and an awful psychiatrist - whose efforts to redeem himself only make him do even worse things. The sweet daughter is prey to the ghost of a rather violent teen boy. And, as we are learning, every family that previously inhabited the house was trying to heal and then somehow were corrupted and torn apart. The show is about the sharp cutting of the ties that bind. I can’t look away.
And then there’s Jessica Lange. Wow. I watch “American Horror Story’’ eagerly waiting for her scenes, as she acts up a storm no matter what the story requires of her. As Constance, she is all over the map - the doting and grieving mother of Addy, who has Down syndrome, and then Addy’s tormentor. But Lange makes it all compelling, playing her as a woman for whom tragic drama is like breathing. She brings a big, welcome slab of Tennessee Williams to this ham and cheese sandwich.