American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy's love of camp is easily his greatest calling card. It can also be his Achilles heel. It's what sent Nip/Tuck spiraling into nonsensical chaos by the final seasons. But that same winking embrace of pop culture and soapy drama is also what made Glee so refreshing when it splashed on the scene in 2009.
And now Murphy has American Horror Story. It's a show that has captivated audiences, particularly given its unique structure wherein each season is a self-contained part in an ongoing anthology, with certain actors returning as new characters. In its third season, the show is focused on a coven of witches in New Orleans. And it very clearly bears Murphy's trademarks in the most delightful and genuinely terrifying ways.
Last night's premiere of American Horror Story: Coven takes the anthology to The Big Easy with a jolting first vignette, where we meet the terrifying Madame Delphine LaLaurie, played with particular terror by Kathy Bates. The year is 1834 and the wealthy socialite LaLaurie is hosting a dinner party at which her debutante daughters are being presented to eligible bachelors. But before the night is wrapped up, her youngest has been caught seducing one of the house slaves (again). Madame Delphine's rage is otherworldly as she drags the slave upstairs to a true house of horrors, where dozens of other male slaves are kept in crude cages. They've all been visibly tortured, some with their faces essentially sewn shut and others nearly ripped apart. The punishment for the poor slave? Why, he gets the freshly severed head of a cow shoved over his own head as blood pours out from its ragged neck. As the slave writhes and screams from inside the head, the truly nightmarish LaLaurie delights in her torture by noting with a grin, "The Minotaur was always my favorite… and now I have one of my very own." To say it's not for the faint of heart is an understatement. It's virtually unbelievable it's on television, in fact.
(Michele K. Short/FX)
From there we jump to the present day, where we meet another recurring AHS player, Taissa Farmiga. Here, she's a teenager named Zoe Benson who discovers she's a witch after watching her boyfriend's head literally half-explode into a bloody mess during their first try at sex together. It turns out having sex with her means certain death and that her family must tell her the truth: She's a witch. But before she can absorb the fact that black magic runs in her blood, she's briskly carted off to a boarding school for witches who need training in how to assimilate into modern day and not be killed. That school, Miss Robichaux's Academy For Exceptional Young Ladies, is run by a woman know as Cordelia Foxx (played by another AHS alum, Sarah Paulson) and houses only three other young witches, celebrity bad-girl Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), sulking Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and quiet Nan (Jamie Brewer).
All of this is just a build-up to unveiling the real star of the show, Fiona Goode, played masterfully by Jessica Lange. It's no surprise Lange has scooped up a shelf full of awards for her work on AHS, where her wild-eyed crazy is perfectly at home. As an actress, Lange can easily fall into the Blanche Dubois world of batty female characters, but her Fiona is a force to be reckoned with as she tromps through scene after scene in crisp black power suits and clip-clopping stilettos. As a "supreme" witch (and Cordelia's mother, we later learn), she's on a two-pronged mission: First is to fight the signs of aging through whatever means necessary, even if that means literally sucking the life out of a handsome young doctor she's hired to research age-inhibiting drugs. Her second directive is to charge into her daughter's witch academy and subvert its purpose by teaching the young witches how to live outwardly without fear.
Before she arrives and begins her revamp of Miss Robichaux's, the young witches try to assimilate on their own by slipping into a college frat party. Madison and Zoe wriggle themselves into the tightest mini-dresses they've got and saunter into the massive sea of boozed-up young things. While Zoe is sweetly flirting with a cute, blonde frat boy downstairs, Madison has been ensnared in the truly evil clutches of a young bro from the same frat. He drugs her and invites a room of monstrous young men to rape her while she's barely conscious on the bed. They take turns while filming each other in a truly horrific sequence that's very, very difficult to watch.
(Michele K. Short/FX)
Although Zoe's blonde crush bursts in the room and stops his frat brothers, the damage has been done. He chases them back onto their awaiting party bus outside, where they throw punches and fight with one another while pulling away. Madison, now alert and able to overpower whatever drugs were slipped to her, determinedly strides into the street with venom visibly coursing through her. Calling upon her witchcraft, she flips the bus and it explodes into flames. We find out the next morning as the TV news blares in Miss Robichaux's Academy that nearly every one of the young men on board died in the fiery wreck. Madison strides past and flips it off, nonchalantly calling it "yesterday's news."
With Fiona's arrival to Miss Robichaux's we learn the mother-daughter witch duo fiercely hates each other. But as a supreme witch, Fiona can pretty much do whatever she damn well pleases. Her daughter is forced to step aside as her mother strides through the old Victorian and demands the girls come on a "field trip" with her. Clad entirely in black, the witches saunter through the French Quarter and into a historic tour of none other than Ms. LaLaurie's opulent home. There, we learn that a voodoo witch named Marie Laveau — beloved partner to the aforementioned slave killed with the severed cow's head — managed to exact revenge on the savage woman by poisoning her with a fake love potion. In the final moments of the show we learn that there might have been something more mysterious in that potion, as Fiona has LaLaurie's coffin dug up only to reveal her very much alive and in chains. Fiona frees the evil woman, still clad in her puffy 1800s finery, and the two saunter off together into the New Orleans night.
Needless to say, the whole affair is grisly and eye-popping stuff, which is exactly why it's no surprise the show has been a shock to TV audiences. While Nip/Tuck eventually got lost in it the snoozy dramatics of its lead characters and Glee has become little more than a bloated music video, American Horror Story smartly sticks to scaring its audience again and again and again.
By holding tight to tried-and-true horror tropes — haunted houses, insane asylums, witches, voodoo — audiences can settle in and let waves of fright wash over them. And, of course, the time of year doesn't hurt, with Halloween just around the bend. For those who are curious about horror stories but ambivalent about trekking out to the nearest cineplex to see one, AHS is ideal.
As any film aficionado knows, you generally can't be too over the top when you're trying to scare your audience. It's always better to swing for the fences and let the audience decide when to cover their eyes. While that formula has been tricky for Murphy and his creative team on other projects, it's perfect for AHS. Horror and camp are intertwined brethren that dance perfectly with each other, especially with frightfully good leads like Bates, Bassett, and Lange.
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