FX's new American Horror Story is horrific in all the wrong ways, could learn from Showtime's Dexter
At first, I assumed that I just didn’t get it.
Sitting in a crowded screening room at the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, I looked around a crowd of buzzing fellow TV critics who had just seen a July screening of Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s new horror show series for FX, American Horror Story.
I was flabbergasted. Because what I had just seen looked like an odd pastiche of fright gags from The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror, stitched together with dashes of kinky sex.
Facing us before the screening, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk admitted they had been influenced by such films when dreaming up their Horror Story, a tale of a damaged family who move into a mysterious house with a murderous history.
But there’s a thin line between homage, appropriation and parody. And American Horror Story crossed those boundaries too often for my tastes.
Forever pouty dreamboat Dylan McDermott is the father, self-righteous psychiatrist Ben Harmon, who moves his family from Boston to Los Angeles after Connie Britton’s Vivien Harmon catches him in the act with a young student.
The corrosive power of sex-based lies is a constant theme here, as McDermott struggles with guilt over his past infidelities, even while piling new lies on top of the old ones (does that explain why we see so many shots of his naked backside in the pilot?).
Of course, once they enter the house Weird Things Happen. Viewers already saw a pair of obnoxious ginger-haired twins murdered in the house’s basement long ago courtesy of a flashback scene; once inside, Ben starts playing with matches while sleepwalking – naked, of course -- learning later that a previous occupant burned up his family there.
Other Weird Things Happen: a maid shows up who looks like a twentysomething hottie to Ben and an old crone to Vivien (the old crone looks a lot like Six Feet Under alum Frances Conroy, stuck in a thankless cliche of a part). Ominous, irritating music swells whenever something strange is coming, like an off kilter Saturday Night Live skit.
There’s a strange, mentally handicapped girl, Adelaide, who loves sneaking into the house at odd times. By the time we see the leather body suit and scarred up guy who burned his family warning Ben about the power of the house, it’s obvious this is The Shining as interpreted by the guy who dreamed up the kinky plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck.
What does work here is the casting. Murphy and Falchuk have an eye for talented, compelling, sexy actors, starting with Britton, who plays the determined relatable, sensuous mom well as anyone this side of Julianna Margulies.
And nabbing Jessica Lange as Adelaide’s oddball mother Constance – a dripping ball of Southern-fried cynicism, contempt and secrets pulled directly from the Blanche DuBois school of characters – was as inspired as it was lucky.
But good horror depends on earning the viewers’ trust; persuading you to buy into the story so when it all goes bad, you’re truly horrified.
By that yardstick, there’s already a much more frightening series on television: Showtime’s cheeky drama about a serial killer of murderers, Dexter. (see Sunday's premiere episode in full below; more story after that)
The show returned for its sixth season Sunday, with more high profile guest stars than ever: Colin Hanks, Mos Def and Edward James Olmos among them.
Our familiar characters are already predictably off-balance. A string of weird murders carried out by Olmos and Hanks land on the radar screen of our favorite serial killer/police blood spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), while he also faces raising a son alone.
Dexter brings its horror subtly, pushing us to root for the guy who is usually the villain, by making his victims more bloodthirsty, obnoxious and socially repellent than he is. By the time Dexter slips his knife into an old acquaintance from high school – a wife-killing, ex-football star full of the arrogance peculiar to those who once ruled the world as teens – you know he’s living a fantasy many of us secretly share.
In the month topped off by All Hallow’s Eve, that’s an important lesson learned. Really good horror is about subverting our desires, making us feel them in full flower before showing us how truly shameful and frightening they can be.
Unfortunately, American Horror Story is too self-aware and deliberate, so intent on referencing decades of horror show contrivances, it buckles under the weight of them.
Murphy and Co. might learn a thing or two from Dexter. Sometimes the most horrifying tale, is the story of a simple man with a complex secret.
Dexter airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. American Horror Story debuts at 10 p.m. tonight on FX. Both are rated TV-MA: Mature Audiences, for language, violence and sex.