French Maids From Beyond the Grave
by Eric J Baker
One of the things I can’t stand about the movie Twister is the lame titular character. It’s a villain without will, intent, or malevolence, inflicting nothing more than incidental damage. All our heroes have to do to escape this villain is get in the car and drive in the opposite direction. Just leave. Don’t drive toward the tornado. Threat over.
But hell if I’m going to talk about tornado movies (?) in October, with the festival of Samhain just around the corner. Tonight I’m talking about haunted house movies, the most scream inducing of all horror subgenres. Except that said screams are usually directed at the people in the movie and go something like, “Hey assholes! Just leave the friggin’ house!”
You know, like the parents in Poltergeist (1982) who, after their daughter gets sucked into another dimension via her bedroom closet and is miraculously rescued from the clutches of evil, put her back in the same damned bedroom!
And let’s not forget The Amityville Horror (1979), in which blood oozing from the walls isn’t enough to make the hero, played by a bushy-headed James Brolin, realize his family would be better off in a house that wasn’t full of evil ghosts. The lesson is: Never trust a main character with a beard (and that applies to Passion of the Christ as well).
Ah, but haunted houses have it all over tornadoes when it comes to malevolence. That, and everyone has been in a house, so we all know what it’s like to hear creaks at night or to venture into a creepy attic. Don’t get me started on the monster under the stairs in my grandmother’s basement either. Where was Child Protective Services? Going after the Poltergeist family, I hope.
Some of the better haunted house movies manage to avoid the “why don’t you just leave?” pitfall. In The Old Dark House (1932, pictured above), the characters are trapped by torrential rains that have washed out the road (never mind that the house turns out not to be haunted). In The Shining (1980), the characters don’t realize they are being haunted until they are snowed in and Jack Nicholson starts doing his Ed McMahon-meets-Lizzie-Borden impersonation (although you wonder why it took possession by ghosts for him to realize his irritating wife needed killing). In 1997’s Event Horizon, the haunted house is a derelict spaceship lost in the far reaches of the solar system. The heroes can’t leave.
So what does FX’s new series, American Horror Story (Wednesdays at 10 pm), add to the genre? Seizures for the audience, maybe.
American Horror Story, currently buzzing on the internet, is a hot mess of frenzied pacing (what happened to building suspense?), melodramatic acting, and exploitation of the mentally disabled. Remember the killer video tape in The Ring, with its rapid-fire mix of unconnected and disorienting images and sounds? Imagine watching that for an hour and eleven minutes, the length of last week’s pilot episode. Imagine a show that hires an actress with Down’s syndrome and then has other characters refer to her as “a mongoloid.” Imagine a naked Dylan McDermott masturbating on camera (though some of you might have gone there a long time ago).
The set-up is rather conventional. Ben Harmon (McDermott) and his wife, Vivien (Connie Britton), a couple with a troubled marriage and an even more troubled daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move into a big, old haunted house for a fresh start, despite learning that the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Next door live a nosey neighbor (Jessica Lange)* and her disabled daughter, the latter of whom spouts random scary phrases like, “You’re all going to die,” and so forth. Ben, a psychiatrist, sets up practice in the home and begins counseling Tate, a high-schooler with fantasies of massacring his classmates.
Like other FX shows, American Horror Story attempts to push the boundaries of basic cable content with heavy use of profanity, violence, and nudity (all male so far… let’s hope this ratio improves). The two leads shout their dialog too often, which quickly becomes tiresome amidst all the hallucinatory images and jarring jump cuts. More interesting is the budding relationship between Violet and Tate, who is more than what he seems. Evan Peters, the actor who plays him, is Malcolm McDowell reincarnated (with all due respect to Mr. McDowell, who is alive and well), so much so that I expect him to look at the camera and say “Viddy well, my little droogies” at any moment.
A clever element is that the new housekeeper, Moira, appears to Ben as a young, sexy woman (in the fine form of True Blood’s Alexandra Breckenridge) and to the rest of his family as old and frumpy spinster (played by Frances Conroy), which sets up amusing miscommunications and a couple of shudders for the viewer as Moira tries to seduce her new employer — and he does not see what the others do.
If only the producers realized they have a weekly series to work with and took a little time to build the fright. It’s easier to go for the cheap scare with editing and music stingers than it is to create tension with storytelling and shot composition. Interesting ideas have been introduced, but they seem to be competing with each other and make the show feel directionless and frustrating. And nothing here is as original or groundbreaking as Lost, so I doubt viewers of American Horror Story will put up with six years of such shenanigans.
The biggest threat to the survival of a horror-themed TV show is the nature of the genre itself. Most horror stories follow the same basic structure: Introduce the mystery, isolate the characters (either physically or, in this case, psychologically), unleash the horror, and then reveal its nature so the heroes can fight back. And as much as I love horror movies, the fatal flaw in most of them is that the first half is better: The mystery is almost always more intriguing than the revelation.
With a TV show, you can’t drag out the mystery too long, because you must continually add more of it without offering explanations (for example, Lost), giving the audience blue balls in the process. Then, when you finally reveal the mystery (not, for example, Lost) and compel the characters to take action, it’s over.
Similar was the problem with the reboot of V two years ago. Aliens want to kill all the humans. A small band of humans want to blow up the aliens. If the aliens kill the humans, the show is over. If the humans blow up the aliens, the show is over. The story becomes inert. It’s like a Mexican standoff in which the third gunslinger is cancellation. Guess who won?
The horror shows that stick around for a while are either anthology series, like Twilight Zone, with new characters and complete stories every week, or Night Stalker variations, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which are really just cop shows with monsters. American Horror Story has framed itself in a way that demands resolution, not just layers of shock. Those glimpses of fanged demons in the basement were intriguing, but they will lose their bite if they don’t start making life dangerous for the heroes. Dylan McDermott showing his bare ass might have surprised the first couple of times, but, by the end of the pilot episode, we stopped asking, “When are we going to see more ass?” The half-burnt guy peaking in the windows may be… actually, that was just overkill. They should have saved him for episode 2.
I’m fascinated enough to dial in for a second go-round this Wednesday, mostly for lurid curiosity. If Moira the sexy maid starts spending as much time bare-assed as McDermott, I may stick around a little longer.
* The first actress I ever thought was sexy (as a young lad watching the wonderfully terrible King Kong remake) is now playing an elderly woman with an adult child. God, I’m getting old.