American Horror Story Review: "Tricks and Treats"
With exorcisms, lesbians, serial killers, sadist doctors, nymphomaniacs, shock treatments, spankings, and Adam Levine from Maroon 5, American Horror Story: Asylum sounds about as bizarre as a Stefon-approved New York night club.
With exorcisms, lesbians, serial killers, sadist doctors, nymphomaniacs, shock treatments, spankings, and Adam Levine from Maroon 5, American Horror Story: Asylum sounds about as bizarre as a Stefon-approved New York night club. To say that Asylum takes the maximalist approach would be an understatement. In the first two episodes of the show’s second season, the writers have incorporated just about every major horror trope imaginable. Did I mention the aliens? I’ll admit that my favorite thing about American Horror Story is the opening theme, that ominous bass line thudding along over various scary found sounds. Charlie Clouser and Cesar Davila-Irizarry’s music provides the perfect counterpoint to the subtle, dark imagery of the title sequence, which quickly cuts between the show’s credits and abstract, ghoulish imagery. Coupled with the beautifully gothic font by Rennie Mackintosh, the whole opening deserves some kind of award.
But on to the episode.
“Tricks and Treats” opens, as the premiere did, in the present day, where two newlyweds are being chased through the now decrepit Briarwood asylum by Bloody Face, a serial killer that was apparently active in 1964. With me? After Bloody Face takes out the husband character played by Adam Levine, the story returns to 1964, where the lover of the now-committed journalist, Lana “Banana,” recalls how Briarwood’s Sister Jude forced her into betraying her love. She vows to recant and see that Lana is set free, but is murdered by Bloody Face before she has the chance. The scene builds with as much suspense as anything Carpenter ever did.
Back at Briarwood, Kit (who has been committed by the authorities, and is believed to be Bloody Face) is evaluated by Dr.Oliver Thredson, played by Zachary Quinto. Kit continues to maintain his innocence; however, his story is so outlandish that Thredson determines he is insane, and not fit to stand trial. Before leaving the hospital, Thredson berates Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) for Briarwood’s archaic treatments. She brushes him off, reminding him he is a visitor. Thredson, however, seems determined to inject himself into the happenings at Briarwood. When he finds Sister Jude counseling a couple seeking help for their son, he offers his services. Much as Thredson wants to treat the young man with modern practices, as it turns out, he’s actually possessed. This necessitates a young preist and an old priest…you know the drill. The men attempt an exorcism, and ask Thredson to assist. “I like having a non-believer in the room,” the old preist says. The exorcism scenes are truly scary–with the young man demonstrating all the standard possessed-person traits: extreme voice modulation, telekinesis, omniscience. Though we’ve seen all this before, the production value of the exorcism is top notch–truly frightening.
American Horror Story isn’t really horror at all: it’s meta-horror. And when you watch the show this way, seeing the tricks for what they are, the experience becomes a real treat.
In the episode’s third plot line (yes, there’s more), we’re treated to a glimpse into the creepy personal life of Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), who has hired a call girl for a night of high culture that includes Chopin, Cabernet, and “kinky” nun dress up. The scene seems to suggest that Arden might be the real Bloody Face, but that’s likely a red herring this early in the season. Between Lange’s upper East coast accent and Cromwell’s tyrannical–yet, believable–maliciousness, the two really make the show work. Both are as compelling as ever, and breathe life into roles that could easily be reduced to cliche.
Despite some truly scary scenes, so far, American Horror Story: Asylum induces more laughter than terror–which is a good thing. Part of the fun is watching the writers cram as much horror iconography into each episode as they can. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but never in one sitting. The obvious critique would be to say that in trying to blend so many subsets of the genre into their story, the writers fail to fully develop any of them. And, it’s true. This show, unlike any other, is just absolutely all over the place. But, that “pull out all stops” attitude is also what makes it so much fun. American Horror Story isn’t really horror at all: it’s meta-horror. And when you watch the show this way, seeing the tricks for what they are, the experience becomes a real treat.