American Horror Story (Murphy, Falchuk, 2011)

I don’t write about much TV on here.  I actually give a lot of it a try but find most of it pretty worthless.  I’m three episodes into American Horror Story.  The show is ridiculously trashy, pretty hysterical, not always well-written, moderately violent (though very violent for TV) and fun as hell.

A husband and wife, Ben and Vivien, with marital problems (Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott) move into  a “murder house” in LA along with their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga).  In addition to visits from fanatical Manson-ites and a taciturn person dressed in full latex, they are terrorized by their Southern belle-neighbor (Jessica Lange!), a former resident of the house and double-homicide perpetrator (Dennis O’Hare in a performance worthy of Twin Peaks), one of Ben’s extremely troubled patients, and a shape-shifting maid.

As I’m sure has been noted across the web, the show isn’t necessarily original in it’s source material (The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and Halloween are only a small handful of references), but it is original in it’s reworking of the hodge-podge of ancestors to which it is indebted.  In short, the show is maniacal.  It jumps around frequently in time, the pacing is helter-skelter (hey-o!), the acting ranges from uber-serious (McDermott) to Kids-in-the-Hall-dark (O’Hare) to whack-job (Lange), the credit sequence is like the one from Se7en on crack, and Bernard Herrman’s strings are heavily employed throughout.

I actually started watching this show solely on the strength of the poster.  Nothing else.  Here it is:

What’s not to like?  Full of mystery, surrealism, violence, sexuality.  I like how it basically works in black, white and red, gives away nothing but promises a lot, and could just as easily be a poster for a sleazy version of Cirque du Soleil than an FX show.

But these aren’t the only reasons I liked the poster.  Certainly no aficionado, I’m still a bit of a film-poster fiend.  Here are a few classics from that genre that I’ve talked about so much recently, the giallo:

The first two there are from a Spanish horror film from 1972 and the recent Italian giallo-homage Amer that I wrote about recently.  The bottom two are the famous Dario Argento 1982 film Tenebre, and the 1972 film The Crimes of the Black Cat.  Notice a common theme?

All four feature a woman in a vulnerable position, quite similar to that in American Horror Story.  The top two show that woman as caught somewhere between pain and pleasure.

All four also show some kind of mysterious – male-implied – interloper.  The first two in the form of a hand only, the bottom two in the form of nothing and a cat and broken glass respectively.

Three of these four utilize the classic spiral background or some variety of it, implying vertigo, violence, and an odd eye for graphic design.

Notice something about that Tenebre poster?  The red hair?  The black/white/red color scheme?  The unknown location?

Anything else worth noting in here?  The fact that the women are all hardly clothed.  The positioning of, specifically, their hair (fetish-esque), that only one of them appears to be dead and the others merely threatened.

Look back at that American Horror Story poster for the similarities – an unknown figure in an unknown space (doesn’t that red room graphically rhyme with the spiral or the blackness of Tenebre?) reaching out a hand towards a scantily clad, red-maned woman in a vulnerable, possibly fearful, possibly pleasure-ful position.  It’s uncanny.  Sort of ironic then, that this would be called American Horror Story as it clearly borrows from its European (mostly Italian…that Spanish poster up top took from the giallos of the time) predecessors.

That’s not to say these are the only ones.  There is, for instance, the cycle of Hammer films that Christopher Lee popularized:

This is from Terrence Fisher’s 1958 film The Horror of Dracula.  Similarities, sure, but the differences are also noteworthy: the violence is not unknown, location is not as important and ambiguous (there’s even a coffin), and clearly nowhere near as stylized.  The brooding sexuality that would “replace” this here is much more passe, and is instead a dark romanticism appropriate to Bram Stoker.

Here’s hoping that American Horror Story sustains it’s absurd momentum.  It’s riding a fine line of one-upsmanship right out of the gate, where each episode needs to not only move forward plot-wise, but also outdo the previous in terms of “what the *#&%*” moments.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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