Tuesday, October 11, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 1: A Body Is Like A House

Okay, now this is more like it.  If you're going to do a haunted-house story, a story about a shunned, damned place full of the unhappy echoes of those who have died within its walls, then don't pull punches, or try to make it some genre window dressing for some kind of soap opera (I am so totally looking at you, Bedlam). Just make it balls-out scary.

The first episode of American Horror Story is dense, layered, complicated, and bizarre to a degree I haven't seen since Twin Peaks. Like that show, it's also sharply scary. Unlike Twin Peaks, which took its time winding things up until you were in the middle of a nightmare without realizing how you got there (at least until Season 2, when it all kind of went in the toilet), American Horror Story pretty much grabs you by the back of the head and dunks your head in the sink.

The show opens in 1978, on a shot of an old, dilapidated brick mansion. The lawn is overgrown and the house is beginning to strangle under climbing vines. A young girl in a bright yellow dress stands outside the house, looking into one of the upper-story windows. Two boys come up the walk - twins carrying baseball bats. They've got vandalism on their minds, but before they can walk in and start smashing things, the girl speaks.

"You're going to die in there."

Of course this doesn't stop the boys from going in and smashing things, and of course, they die in there. Forward to the present day.

The Harmon family have moved from Boston to Los Angeles to try and pull themselves together. Ben's a psychiatrist in private practice, Vivien was a cellist, and Violet is their daughter. From the word go, this family is just barely holding together. Everyone is angry and lashing out at everybody else. We discover that Vivien had a horrible, traumatic miscarriage, then Ben had an affair as the loss pushed them apart, and Violet's pretty much disgusted with both of them. This move is intended to give them a chance to start over, as they move into the same house we saw in the beginning, now cleaned and remodeled. It dates back to the 1920s, its first owner a "doctor to the stars," according to the realtor. The most recent owners were a gay couple who put a great deal of work into the house.

Put a great deal of work into the house, and...ended up dead. In a murder/suicide pact.

So this is a house with a long, awful history. To start, we're only getting bits and pieces of it, as people are introduced (a neighbor, a maid, a client of Ben's, the girl from the beginning now grown, a disfigured man) and questions about them raised just as quickly. It's a good thing that FX has committed to 13 episodes of this show, because just from the pilot I'm getting the sense that it's going to take at least that long to untangle the knots we've had dropped into our lap. To say that not everyone is who they seem to be, well, of course not. But we get just enough to upend anything we might have concluded just minutes before. It's like three episodes' worth of dramatic reveals in one episode. I'll say it again: This is a dense show.

The density isn't just the amount of information we get, it's also in the recurrent themes and imagery. Sleepwalking, dreaming, and fire resonate throughout, analogies are made comparing bodies to houses (especially unsettling since the last resident of Vivien's body was dead before birth), and there's a hazy feeling that none of this is quite new, that perhaps, history is once again repeating itself - or maybe it's just the same story over and over again over the decades. You've always been the caretaker of the Overlook.

Even the production choices enhance the sense of unreality and dislocation - the camerawork is a continually shifting beast - odd angles, handheld jitteriness, and an odd, disconnected style of editing that makes it feels like frames have been dropped somewhere, as if continuity has begun to break down. Quick, almost-subliminal shots are cut into the middle of continuous scenes, adding to this sense that reality is slipping, for us as well as the characters. Sometimes this visual business becomes a little distracting, keeping us from really taking in the implications of a shot or a scene before we're on to the next one. It's only mildly distracting (though there was one particular scene that should have been absolutely terrifying and would have been if it hadn't happened and been over so quickly), mostly because you're so busy trying to decode things that the end effect is one of being swept up headlong into the turmoil contained by the walls of the house. That said, I'd like to see the show slow down and breathe a little more. When it does, the silences and steadily held shots can be just as chilling. More prosaically, the effects work is a little uneven - some works at creating a mood of nightmarish surrealism (or surrealist nightmare), others verge a little more on SyFy Original Movie territory. It's not a complete miss at its worst, but it's sitting on the verge.

Based on the pilot, this is going to live up to its title - it's the death of everyone who walks into the house, it's the death of the American family. It's a nightmare curdling in the middle of the City of Angels, and so far, it's shaping up to be an impressive piece of work.

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