“American Horror Story” is the most unpredictably predictable work of horror in recent history. And I’m still not sure if that makes it good.
Last Wednesday, the series’ third and final story cycle debuted on FX, subtitled “Coven.” I say story cycle instead of season because each year the series resets, dropping the previous story for a new one with a new horror theme and new batch of characters. The first cycle was a haunted house in LA, the second an insane asylum in the 60s, and now with the third it’s witches. The same actors are employed in each to play different roles, which calls to mind Hitchcock’s rotating list of leading men and ladies, or “Cloud Atlas.” You could mistake it as a Brechtian gesture, a hint of more subliminal genius. Perhaps creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk wanted to show the phobias and anxieties that make up the American mindset, and the use of three stories allows them to paint a more complete picture. More likely, it saves them the mental fatigue of tying all the stories together.
See, part of liking “American Horror Story”— and in ways I do like it—requires you to accept there’s no order to it. It’s a patchwork Frankenstein abortion made by writers who’ve watched enough horror to name-drop it convincingly (“See? That kid’s supposed to be the Antichrist. Of course we’ve seen “The Omen”). The tone is all over the chart, from camp to sleaze to gory provocation. It can’t decide if it wants to be a mature work of horror or just an edgier “Glee,” and so we instead end with a sort of grotesque hysteria.
In the first cycle, “Murder House,” that hysteria gave us a wonderfully absurd fifty-car pile-up of a plot as the show turned its high body-and-ghost count into an excuse to indulge in bondage fantasies with a supernatural twist. I haven’t seen “Asylum,” but the reactions I’ve heard range from “passable” to “steer clear like the plague” —perhaps the hysteria was too much, the tone shifts too painful. Now, “Coven” begins by trying to hide the hysteria. It hides it behind an improved production design, a glossier, cinematic look loaded with Dutch angles, fish-eye lenses, silent film footage, and overhead shots so irrelevant it’s almost ballsy. With “Breaking Bad” gone, “American Horror Story’s” wasted no time asserting itself as TV’s visual showboat. “Coven” might be best watched with the sound off, just to focus on the pretty pictures.
But since you’ll probably have the sound on anyway, it doesn’t take long for the hysteria to peek through. Like a disturbed horse, the script races ahead and loses control early on in an opening sequence involving Kathy Bates as real-life serial killer Madame LaLaurie. It depicts her semi-factual torture of African American slaves in gruesome, lurid detail, bringing us face to face with our country’s racial hypocrisy in a truly disturbing sequence. Then, a scene later, we’re following Taissa Farmiga as she integrates herself into a school for witches, part Hogwarts, part Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. And then we’re safely back in “Glee” territory, with the mean witch and the handicapped witch and the black sassy witch who begins every sentence with “Giiirl.” You have to remind yourself while you’re watching, “Wasn’t this show trying to say something profound earlier?”
And that divide continues in an episode that depicts a frat-party gang rape shortly after the victim asks one of the rapists to “be her slave.” Sure, there’s something being said here about race and gender, but bugger-all if I can tell you what it is. Mostly it’s a crass attempt to tie together two very different issues and pass it off as “complex characterization.” Sure, the rapist gets his comeuppance in his end, the tables are turned and the women reclaim their autonomy, and it’s not like “American Horror Story” hasn’t gone for broke before and tackled current events with sensationalist verve (remember the Columbine recreation in “Murder House”). But there’s a constant lack of responsibility which has been the series’ hallmark, an inability to maintain tone exacerbated now by the amount of subplots and guest stars the series insists on cramming in on account that it’s now a pop culture fixture.
So is it terrible then that I intend to keep watching? That I’m intrigued by how far down the rabbit hole its social awareness will plunge before turning into tone-deaf anarchy? I’m not watching for good horror. There’s none of that here, none of the control or puppet-master tendencies necessary to manipulate audiences. There’s not even the sociopathic insanity that distinguished “Human Centipede” and “Cannibal Holocaust.” “American Horror Story” is too confused to fit the grindhouse mold; too fussy and self-conscious.
Maybe it’s because its cast seems to accept the nonsense and wring it for what little ethos it’s worth. Perhaps I’ll still be chasing after the goofy thrills that made “Murder House” a not-so-guilty pleasure. Or it may be that, even bad horror, if it’s so radically different from everything else in its field, deserves some attention. Most other horror films don’t even have the breath for hysteria. They can only muster a manic disinterest. “Coven” is dizzying and loud and obnoxious and a little irresponsible but it’s also big and dopey and no matter how much it adheres to its own formula, you can never accuse it of just going through the motions.