Halloween seems to get bigger and better each year and has changed loads since I was a kid. These days the Halloween merch hits the shops as soon as the last of the school uniforms has been sold, and we have almost an entire month to get into the spirit of things. And what better way to spend your ever looming evenings during the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness than themed TV and films? After all, if it’s good enough for Christmas then it’s good enough for Halloween… So, late to the party (but in actual fact I like it better this way so that I can binge watch – worked perfectly with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones) I set about watching American Horror Story on Netflix.
For the unfamiliar, American Horror Story is an anthology of sorts, each season telling a different story of haunting, murder, witchcraft, or some other supernatural spookiness. With titles such as The Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, Hotel, Roanoke, and its latest series Cult (all available on Netflix), the tales are interwoven with true life atrocities as far back as the Salem witch trials and slavery in the U.S. and even inspired by modern day horrors such as the death of hotel guest Elisa Lam under mysterious circumstances in 2013.
As someone who hasn’t got the bottle for the horror genre (SAW 3 is the only film I’ve ever walked out of the cinema during) I was hoping that American Horror Story would be a less intense foray than that of a feature film. After all, I was too young and too scared to watch any of the slasher movies of the 80s and couldn’t even bear the suspense of 90s Wes Craven films (like why would you open the door? Why?). When The Blair Witch Project premiered at cinemas it was a relief that the only tickets we could get were for the front row and as a result I felt more car sick from being too close than frightened to death.
Expect to enjoy plenty of nods to The Shining, Ed Gein inspired horror movies, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Children of the Corn (which my big brother once made me watch when he was babysitting me – no wonder I am petrified by everything now), drawing on all the classic horror themes: vampires, clowns, seances, psychotic killers, and generally opening doors you really probably shouldn’t open.
AHS is a mixture of camp and gruesome; there’s thought gone into the plots but little in the way of thrilling suspense. Even so, binge-watching several dozen squelchy stabbings, amputations, and shootings, you start to get a bit gore weary. The foley board gets a good outing and the show is an SFX MUA’s dream.
One of the strangest things about the series is the repertory cast who appear as different characters each season (but look out for the odd link here and there such as certain characters in Season 4 ‘Freakshow‘ whose stories tie in with the second season ‘Asylum‘ amongst other crossovers). By season 5 I was getting sick of the sight of poor Sarah Paulson.
Some of them, for me, worked well as one character but not another; Evan Peters plays a great 50s-style rebel without a cause but doesn’t cut it as a murderous millionaire from the 1920s. Others, like Lily Rabe, seem to make a good ‘type’ in every season (my interpretation: quite annoying and a bit of a sap).
It’s very glossy and American – it’s from some of the creators of Glee and while it bears little resemblance to the high school series, it does have some very bizarre musical breaks in it and I’m still trying to figure out who paid who for the Stevie Nicks extravaganza in Season 2 which had absolutely bugger all to do with the plot. Don’t get me wrong, I love a cameo. But this came across like someone’s dad was repaying a favour for giving their daughter work experience in the summer holidays.
Despite the nonsense, unnecessary weird music, and fleshy sound effects, the costumes are glorious (Lady Gaga’s wardrobe throughout season 5 is sublime) and the sets are fabulous. My favourite faces are Kathy Bates (wonderfully stony faced), Jessica Lange, and Angela Bassett (both glamourous and beautiful women with deadly attitude). I don’t know whether it’s coincidence that they’re probably amongst the oldest actors in the cast, or whether I’m biased towards them because I like to celebrate women of all ages. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve been given great parts or because they play them so well. But they’re not bit parts, they’re main and/or important roles and I’d like to see that more often.
It’s nice to see that: a bit of diversity in the age department. The show doesn’t shy away from the grotesque treatment of entire groups of people throughout history, in fact: women’s rights, slavery, physical disabilities and congenital anomalies, mental illnesses, homophobia. As it reveals backstories to characters, it touches on prejudice, shame, guilt, rejection, isolation, addictions and loneliness. And while it’s hard to sympathise with many – or any – of the characters, American Horror Story somehow gives you pause for thought: maybe these ghosts and ghouls aren’t so different to us after all.
If you haven’t got time to binge-watch an entire show, try some of these short horror films via Cultured Vultures
The story behind the real Cortez Hotel from Season 5, ‘Hotel’
Find out more about real life enslaved women caught up in the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s
Learn EVERYTHING you need to know – and more – about serial killers with comedians Kiri Pritchard-McLean and Rachel Fairburn
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