“46,000 people died here. Do you think it’s haunted?”
It would have been so much better for me if I had seen the first season of American Horror Story. Of course, it isn’t necessary. This has to be one of the most clever television ideas I’ve encountered. You don’t have to have seen the first season because, while the actors are pretty much the same, they play completely different parts in a completely different story in the second season. This kind of television takes you back to the early days of sketch television and reparatory theater. The difference is that this stuff has an edge. It has an edge so sharp that you’re very liable to hurt yourself if you’re not very careful.
The first season apparently dealt with a haunted house story set pretty much in the present day. I expect I’ll soon be rectifying the fact that I have not seen it. This season the show goes back to the 1960’s for most of the time and takes us into a very creepy insane asylum. Most of the cast from the first season have returned.
“The Catholic church bought this place in ’62, and turned it into a sanitarium for the criminally insane. Legend has it that once you were committed to Briarcliff, you never got out.”
The show actually starts in the present day. We find a couple on their honeymoon. They’ve decided to take a tour of the 12 most haunted sites in America. One of those places is the trashed remains of Briarcliff Asylum. It was first a TB ward and was later converted into an asylum for the criminally insane. Its most famous resident was the serial killer Bloody Face. Think Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface and Silence Of The Lambs’s Buffalo Bill, and you get an idea of what kind of a maniac this guy was. The couple finds out firsthand what a terror Briarcliff must have been. These segments often act as bookends for the story of the season.
Lana Winters (Paulson) is an ambitious young female reporter in the early 1960’s. She wants to prove that a woman can be just as tough and hard-hitting as a man. So she goes to Briarcliff on the day that Bloody Face is being admitted. There she meets the cold Sister Jude (Lange) who runs the facility for the Church. She has no intention of giving Lana the access she wants, so Lana sneaks back in through the asylum’s Death Chute, a tunnel used to secretly shuttle out the piles of dead bodies during the TB years. The ploy backfires, and she’s caught by Sister Jude, who drugs her and makes her a patient in the facility. Briarcliff is populated by some strange characters. Then there’s the inmates.
A particular treat finds Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy as an Angel of Death character. She gets to have her cake and eat it too. She’s very underplayed and almost unrecognizable under the makeup as the Angel, but she also gets to fill some time as an inmate who taunts Sister Jude during her horribly ironic fall from grace. It’s an over the top performance here that you might have expected more in a 1930’s Cagney gangster film.
Sister Jude runs the place with an iron fist. This is not a woman you want to get angry, as Lana quickly learns. She has some very troubling demons in her own past that get explored through flashbacks. Jessica Lange is captivating in the role. When she speaks, you listen. There are so many nuances to this character that she’s almost confined the time allotted. She’s definitely influenced by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s infamous Nurse Ratchet. The asylum itself owes more than a few nods to that classic film, from the constant playing of a French record to the cold unswerving belief that she’s making a difference here; the only thing missing is Jack Nicholson.
But this is a much darker and colder place than the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’ll find that darkness in no one more than Dr. Arden, played by James Cromwell. He’s using the patients to conduct outlandish experiments. The failures roam the grounds like rejects from Dr. Moreau. The successes merely suffer unthinkable agony. A patient who believes she is Anne Frank labels him a Nazi, and while she certainly isn’t who she thinks she is, he might be.
Arden isn’t the only one performing strange experiments here. Bloody Face suspect Kit Walker is played by Evan Peters. He claims to be innocent and that he and his wife have been abducted by aliens. It appears they may be real, and Dr. Arden wants to find out who and what they are.
Then there’s Dr. Thredson, played by Zachary Quinto. He’s the calm voice of reason as the visiting psychiatrist. He wins over both Kit and Lana as someone who can help them. Of course, no one is who we think they are, and needless to say, Thredson is going to deliver quite a few shocks as the season progresses. Quinto reveals more than a little of his Heroes character Sylar at times.
Sister Mary Eunice, played by Lily Rabe, is the untouched innocence of the piece…until she’s not. When an exorcism goes pretty badly the demon infects the young nun, and she begins to systematically destroy the people around her. This part works mostly because you buy the sweet innocence in Lily Rabe from the beginning. The plot does an excellent job of setting that up in stark contrast to Sister Jude. At first we know who the evil one and who the good one is. By the time she comes into her own, however, Sister Eunice makes Sister Jude look like a saint. It’s brilliant the way these characters cross each other as evil seeks redemption while good is corrupted by a demon.
Just like in Cuckoo’s Nest the asylum is populated by the gamut of crazy and strange characters that provide wonderful little stories within themselves. We only get to know a handful of them well, but they create a motif together that can only strengthen the creepy atmosphere of this place.
As the season wears on, we are catapulted through the years and up to the present day. There we find the son of Bloody Face, played by Dylan McDermott. It’s safe to say that this apple didn’t fall far from the rotten tree.
There are some simply brilliant performances here. Each member of the troupe appears well cast in their roles for this season. But the most impressive character of all is Briarcliff itself. The production design is as good as any feature film I’ve ever seen. Even without all of the bizarre goings on, this is just not a place I’d want to spend even a second in. You have to believe it influenced the performances. No wonder the acting was so good. I’ll bet some of them didn’t have to go that far to find their characters in a place like this.
If there is a flaw in the series, it’s absolutely the attempt to pour too much into just 13 episodes. You’ll find the trappings of several genres here: slasher film, alien abduction, demonic possession, demented killer, creatures, and let’s not forget the humans. They inflict most of the misery here. The series does tend to travel far from its own center. While I can admire the ambition, and there’s certainly never a dull moment, it can be overwhelming at times to understand just where they’re going at any particular moment. There are so many characters to service with complicated arcs for all.
The series addresses many of the social issues of both the 60’s and today. It serves as a rather stark look at the contrast between social views of the time as opposed to today. They delve into homosexuality, women’s rights, abortions, and most importantly the attitudes toward the insane.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.79:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The series has a very distinctive visual style. Colors are rather drab. There’s almost an organic texture to the walls of the asylum that comes through startlingly intense with this high-definition image presentation. The devil here is literally in the details, and you’ll find them in all of their glory with a crisp sharpness that’s almost disturbing in these environs. Black levels are quite remarkable for a television series. Blacks are inky so that you just never know what’s in the shadows here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is better than serviceable. Of course, the dialog comes through just fine at all times. It’s the wonderful ambience of the sound that pulls you in so tight. It’s at once close and intimate while allowing you to feel the cold walls that echo strange soft sounds from somewhere in the distance. It’s hard to exactly describe, but the place sounds wet and damp.
Deleted Scenes: (4:00) There are only two with no individual selection.
The Orderly: (9:00) The orderly character takes an unseen female on a tour of the cells of the asylum. He tells her about several of the key characters complete with show clips.
What Is American Horror Story – Asylum?: (21:55) This is the cast and crew interview sound bites that give you some of the philosophy of the show.
Welcome To Briarcliff: (15:04) Here’s a good look at the sets and production design of the show.
The Creatures: (14:49) A look at the makeup effects.
The show certainly gets in your headspace. They’ve done such a great job creating this somewhat exaggerated reality that it’s easy to get lost inside the series. As an outsider it’s quite hard for me to imagine these players in new roles with different interactions and relationships. It appears as though they’ve already pulled it off twice. It’s a show you do need to invest yourself in. It’s not casual background viewing. There literally hasn’t been anything like it on television before. The closest I can remember was Karen Black playing three different roles in the television movie Trilogy Of Terror in the 70’s. The third story was one of the scariest I’d ever seen. The fans appear to have already decided this one’s a hit. I’m here to deliver a second opinion. “Diagnosis: acute clinical insanity.”