I’ve got to give Ryan Murphy (creator of ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘Glee’) credit where it’s due. The guy may not have yet figured out how to sustain a TV show in the long run (though he’s certainly tried), but he sure knows how to start one off with a bang. The producer’s latest series ‘American Horror Story’ debuted on the FX network last week, and the pilot episode is filled with more balls-out insanity in one hour alone than ten R-rated horror movies slammed together. I can’t believe this thing aired on basic cable. I also have to admit that I kind of loved it.
Here’s the plot summary: After Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) make a hash of their lives in Boston, they pack everything up and drag their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera) off to start a new life in Los Angeles. A year earlier, Vivien suffered a miscarriage and, because he’s basically an asshole, Ben cheated on her with one of his psychology students. They’ve reconciled but are still on shaky grounds. Vivien can’t bring herself to trust Ben, and Ben is resentful that she hasn’t had sex with him in more than a year.
The Harmons move into a big old house that they manage to buy for a fraction of its worth because the previous owners, a gay couple, died in a murder-suicide in the basement. Violet thinks that’s awesome. What they don’t know is that the previous owners before that also died violently in the house. And the owners before that… And the owners before that… And so on. In other words, this creepy house is obviously haunted. But they don’t believe in that nonsense, so it should be OK. Right?
Let’s run down some of the weird stuff that happens in the first hour, shall we? Vivien hires an elderly, one-eyed housekeeper named Moira (Frances Conroy from ‘Six Feet Under’) who has a history with the house. When Ben looks at Moira, he can only see a sexy young nymphet. He’s a little puzzled why his wife would hire such a girl, but isn’t going to question it. A strange man with burns over most of his body (Denis O’Hare from ‘True Blood’) stalks Ben, tells him that he used to live in the house, and that the house drove him to set his family on fire. Vivien discovers a strange, Satanic-looking mural hidden under the wallpaper in the living room. Ben and Vivien find a rubber S&M outfit hanging in the attic, which they assume belonged to the gay couple. Later, Vivien sees what she believes is Ben wearing the outfit, presumably as a joke. Turned on by this, she has sex with him/it, but we happen to know that Ben is actually sleepwalking in the kitchen at that time. Later, Vivien announces that she’s pregnant.
The Harmons’ neighbor, an older Southern belle named Constance (Jessica Lange) keeps intruding into the house with unwanted advice and a habit of stealing things. Constance has a daughter with Down Syndrome named Addie, who repeatedly breaks into the house and says charming things like, “You’re going to die in here.” Constance cruelly refers to her daughter as a “the Mongoloid.” When Moira confronts Constance stealing some jewelry from Vivien’s room, Constance says to her, “I’d be nervous if I were you two” and “Don’t make me kill you again.”
Daughter Violet is pretty much a mess. She likes to cut herself, and gets into a brutal brawl with some mean girls on practically her first day at the new school. Ben begins counseling a troubled, possibly psychotic teen named Tate who has fantasies of mass murdering everyone at his school (also Violet’s school?). Tate sees Violet cutting herself and gives her tips on the best way to slit her wrists if she’s planning to commit suicide. They become fast friends, against Ben’s wishes. Tate offers to help Violet scare one of the mean girls into leaving her alone. Violet lures the girl to her basement by promising her drugs. Ben is waiting there. The lights start flickering, and in subliminal flashes, we see what appears to be a demon attack the girl and claw her face. The girl runs away screaming. Violet is so freaked out that she kicks Ben out of the house too.
By listing the plot-points out like this, I’m really not doing the show justice. It’s all about atmosphere, and Ryan Murphy (who also directed) pulls out all the stops to make the ‘Pilot’ episode totally surreal and creepy as hell. To do so, he isn’t afraid to shamelessly lift bits and pieces from countless of his favorite horror movies. There’s an opening credits sequence that looks and sounds a lot like the one in ‘Se7en’, ghostly twins and gushers of blood from ‘The Shining’, and other references to the likes of ‘Psycho’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Haunting’ and more. Even the casting of McDermott may be intended to recall his starring role in a crappy haunted house movie called ‘The Messengers‘ (or maybe that one’s just a coincidence). Somehow, it all works. This is a ‘Kill Bill’-style greatest hits pastiche of horror stories, and damn does it come together with style and energy and verve. It’s spooky and surreal and nerve-janglingly suspenseful – and most of all, it’s just a lot of fun.
I have no idea how long this show can sustain itself. The concept doesn’t seem like something that can be dragged out to long form. Eventually, this family is either going to have to die or defeat the evil in the house. How long could they live there without one of those two outcomes happening? I don’t know, but if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get a whole season of episodes as entertaining as this one before Murphy lets it fall to shit (as inevitably happens with all of his TV series). I’m definitely ready to take that ride.