Sunday, October 21, 2012

American Horror Story - Asylum: Monster Hospital

The first season of American Horror Story was a thorough kick in the ass - sharp, nervy, lurid, and completely batshit insane. Almost every episode had at least one "did that just happen?" moment to it, either in a turn of the story, a particular shot, or a jab at one television taboo or another. Ghosts in rubber fetish suits, fathers crying while they masturbate, girls with Down Syndrome telling little boys "you're going to die in there" - and that was just the fucking pilot episode.

All of this garnered the show a  lot of interest, but I think it sort of missed what was really good about the show - the freedom to stomp on taboos wasn't the point, it was a necessary byproduct of the show's thesis: American horrors.  The first season was a tour through all of our nightmares - ghosts and monsters, sure, but also failing at your job, letting down your family, losing your spouse, being stuck with an unsellable house, infidelity, school shootings, bullying unsuitable boyfriends, abortion, blackmail, impotence, and the whole secret history of the Los Angeles in which it was set - starlets come to make their way in Hollywood only to die ugly anonymous deaths, furtive homosexual assignations ending in stabbings by rough trade, crazed serial killers and their family-like devotees, it's all there, all of our American horror. The stories we tell to keep the darkness manageable, the darkness we're trying to manage, and the darkness too deep to even get a story of its own.

Lucky for all of us, they got another season.

The first thing announced would be that it would be an entirely new story, with some cast members from the first season returning in new roles. That is awesome. It means not getting too bogged down in increasingly complex tangles of story continuity, it means exploring new ideas without shoehorning them in to an existing format, and it means that the story can actually end instead of lingering for seasons and seasons with scant payoff at the end. So this new season has started and it looks like it's going to be as crazed as the first.

The first episode introduces the new location - Briarcliff Hospital, a former tuberculosis ward turned asylum for the criminally insane. In the present day, it's in ruins and carries the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in America. A couple - young, in love, and seriously committed to getting their freak on - has made it their mission to visit each of the most haunted places in America and screw their brains out in each one of them. Which sort of sums up the American Horror Story ethos up to this point - people having really weird sex in haunted houses.

As the couple moves through the house, we flash back to the mid-60s, in the middle of Briarcliff's asylum days, It's run by a Catholic order, and the head nun has some interestingly draconian ideas about mental illness (it's sin, pure and simple) and treatment (purification, via her impressive collection of canes, crops, and flogs). She's also carrying a torch - well, "torch" is too mild a word, more like a cauldron of molten lava - for the monsignor who administers the place. So there's this whole lust/punishment thing going on with her about which say no more. And as much as she yearns for the monsignor, she loathes the doctor enlisted by the monsignor to treat the patients. And by "treat", I mean "on which he performs bizarre experiments in a secret lab on the hospital grounds." He's enlisted the help of one of the junior nuns, who feeds raw meat to half-glimpsed feral things in the woods outside the hospital, and he scrubs down long-disused shower rooms down with disinfectant, fresh scratches scarring the walls. The patients he treats have no family. Nobody will miss them.

Outside the walls of the asylum, mid-60s America has nightmares of its own. Two young couples in love, careful to hide it from the eyes of the world. A young black woman, a young white man, married and quick to close the shades before they kiss. Two young women, a journalist and a schoolteacher, the love that dare not speak its name setting up housekeeping. The horrors of the 1960s weren't ghosts and werewolves and vampires and zombies They were repression, fear, what you wanted crashing up against what society said you could have, the cold, impersonal administration of science and institutional medicine acting as a rough corrective to deviance. There are some flashes of the bizarre - what might be an alien abduction, the beasts in the woods, science gone awry - but these are the terrors of a world not yet ready to burst into massive social change. If the first season of American Horror Story was the hot reds of desire run amok, this season is the cold blues and greys of repression, of desire sealed up and in danger of becoming something misshapen and strange. There are nods to the appropriate horror models - A Clockwork Orange, Shutter Island, The Silence of the Lambs - making this as much a survey of horror in art as horror in life in culture.

Most importantly, it's just as utterly berserk as the first. The first episode is a barrage of images, scenes, dialogue, flashbacks, reveries, nightmares and hallucinations thrown at the viewer just a little faster than what we can process, slightly hysteric in presentation (which given the dominant subject matter is wholly appropriate). Threads start to weave together in the last fourth or so of the episode, and by the time the credits roll, everyone is where they're going to be, their fates decided, all in preparation for the storm to come. I anticipate that this is going to be some seriously good shit and appointment television, straight up.

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