The ninth season of American Horror Story, dubbed AHS 1984, has a fun premise and a totally rad opening credits sequence. Will that be enough to sustain another year of a series long past its prime? I’m not sure how confident I am about that.
As the title should suggest, this season will be a riff on ’80s slasher movies. However, the premiere actually starts with a flashback to 1970. A trio of teenage counselors at a summer camp are just about to have a threesome when they’re rudely interrupted by a psycho killer who gruesomely stabs them all in the faces and cuts off their ears as trophies. Before he leaves the cabin, a bunch of kids are dead as well. Gross.
Jump forward to 1984. The Olympics are coming to Los Angeles and a serial killer called the Night Stalker is terrorizing the city. Both are good reasons to get the hell out of town for the summer. Shy wallflower Brooke (Emma Roberts) is new to L.A. but quickly makes friends with big-haired bad girl Montana (Billie Lourd) at an aerobics class. More accurately, Montana decides that Brooke is going to be her friend, and Brooke is too much of a pushover to resist. Montana and her entourage have lined up summer jobs at a camp – the same one from the prologue, of course – and pressure Brooke to join them. She resists at first, but after an intruder claiming to be the Night Stalker breaks into her apartment and threatens to kill her, she rethinks that idea and hops on the van to Camp Redwood.
On the way, the group run into some familiar slasher movie tropes, including a creepy backwoods gas station attendant who warns them that their lives are in danger. Most of them, except Brooke, think he’s a kook and shrug off the encounter. Before they get to the camp, their van hits a hiker on the road. The man survives, but is injured and quickly falls into a coma. Douchebag Chet (Gus Kenworthy) makes everyone agree to a story that they found the guy on the side of the road that way, already wounded. They throw him in the van and bring him along to the camp, where he can recover.
Closed for the past 14 years, Camp Redwood is now owned by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman from last year’s Apocalypse season, now aged-up with makeup), a stern religious nut who forbids drinking, smoking, or fraternization between the sexes. Montana and her crew don’t take her too seriously. However, when camp nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) tells the story of psycho killer “Mr. Jingles,” Margaret reveals that she’s missing an ear. She was one of the victims from the 1970 massacre, but miraculously survived her near-death experience. She credits divine intervention and has sworn to reopen the camp to wash away the bad memories.
Eventually, the hiker wakes up and we see that he too is missing an ear. (How did the nurse not notice that?) He’s totally freaked out about being at the camp.
One day before the camp officially opens, sleazy activities director Trevor (Matthew Morrison from Glee, rocking a hilarious mustache and muscle shirt), arrives with designs to get laid ASAP. Montana has the hots for him. They go skinny-dipping.
As it turns out, that very same night, Mr. Jingles himself (John Carroll Lynch) escapes from a nearby loony bin and heads for Camp Redwood. First, he stops to murder the gas station mechanic by crushing him to death under a car he’s working on, then stomping his face into goo.
Already a tightly wound ball of nerves, Brooke completely loses her shit when she finds the hiker murdered and is chased through the woods by someone she believes is Mr. Jingles. Her new friends think that she’s mentally snapped when there’s no sign of the hiker’s body. They assume that he woke up and wandered off.
Brooke is further unnerved when the camp pay phone mysteriously starts ringing non-stop in the middle of the night. When she answers it, she hears strange noises on the other end of the line. While she stands there holding the phone, the Night Stalker guy from Los Angeles spies on her from the treeline. He of course followed her to the camp. That can’t be good – unless, as seems a little obvious – Montana and her pals staged the Night Stalker attack to trick Brooke into coming to camp with them.
The ’80s slasher theme is certainly ripe for parody and seems to have a lot of potential for good, goofy scares. The premiere episode gets off to a strong start and has fun mocking the fashions, fads, and music of the decade. Unfortunately, while nothing about it turned me off, exactly, I started to get a little bored before the episode was over. At least so far, it turns out to be less a send-up of the genre than a simple, straightforward regurgitation of slasher movie tropes and clichés. That can get old quickly. Most of those movies were pretty bad, but at least they had the sense to wrap up at 80 minutes or so. The prospect of sitting through ten episodes of this doesn’t excite me, personally.
Of course, it’s still early in the season, and American Horror Story has a tendency to veer wildly as it mashes together various horror ideas. Perhaps the show will roll out something interesting with the next plot twist. On the other hand, the series also has a history of running out of steam long before its seasons are over. And, let’s be honest, the movie The Cabin in the Woods already did about as good a job deconstructing ’80s horror as any fan could want. What could this show possibly add to that?
I haven’t finished watching an entire season of American Horror Story since the Hotel arc with Lady Gaga (Season 5). I’m not sure I’ll make it through this one, but I will say that it starts much better than the last two years did, which is something. I’ll cut it some slack for a couple more episodes, at least.