American Horror Story: The Complete First Season (2011)
By: Fin H. on January 24, 2013 | Comments
20th Century Fox | Region 4, PAL | 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 451 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk
Starring: Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Jessica Lange, Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Breckenridge
Country: USA
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With the enduring success of HBO's True Blood, the powers-that-be have evidently decreed that the telly-watching public are ready to take receipt of another consignment of supernatural violence and seething lust dressed up in the trappings of Gothic horror. Apparently they've been lapping it up like vampires at a Red Cross blood donor van crash too, because we're already moving toward a third season, but I'm here to give you the low-down on the first instalment.

The set-up is ingeniously simple: put an American family (replete with standard-issue American TV family problems) in a suitably spooky old house, then bombard them week in week out with industrial-scale quantities of batshit-insane supernatural trauma. The issues facing our down-to-Earth family of relatively super-wealthy and privileged protagonists, the Harmons, are pretty well-worn chestnuts; the psychiatrist father, Ben, played by Dylan McDermott (Tales From the Crypt 1989), has cheated on his wife, Vivien (Connie Britton: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010) with one of his hot young psychiatry students and he is forever chucking anguished tanties because he, with his deep and profound knowledge of the human condition, cannot begin to fathom why the missus no longer wants to even look at his errant todger. With such banal domestic crises, we'll need the otherworldly antics to come thick and fast and, boy, do they!

We may have the pilot episode "Cram as many promising plot threads in as possible so our show looks exciting and gets greenlit!" syndrome to thank for this; the first episode doesn't so much take a scattershot approach as it does jam a barrel up each of the viewer's nostrils and blow their head clean off. Luckily, this eventually subsides as the various characters and plot elements settle into place. The pace never slackens to anything less than brisk, though, and American Horror Story features an assortment of weird n' wacky characters who all seemingly have carte blanche to roam the corridors of the Harmon family's home and routinely turn up in a room unannounced like Kramer (if Kramer were an ambiguous supernatural presence with questionable motives instead of a tosser).

The jewel in the crown of the supporting cast is Jessica Lange (Cape Fear 1991) who plays next-door neighbour Constance Langdon, a shady lady with an oddly aristocratic, old world air about her who swans about bringing new meaning to the word "presumptuous" and blithely tossing out breathtakingly inappropriate remarks. Her behaviour leaves Vivien Harmon in a state of perpetually bemused incredulity which enhances the sense of unreality about Constance. Equally strange, if rather less malevolent, is her Downs Syndrome-afflicted daughter, Adelaide. Adelaide manifests an ability to communicate with the dead and is a constant source of exasperation for the Harmons, as she repeatedly intrudes on their property making bizarre statements and issuing proclamations of doom.

We also have Moira O'Hara (a name that sounds like it should at all times be accompanied by fiddles and uilleann pipes, so it does). Moira was apparently the housekeeper for the previously, brutally murdered occupants, and her wafting, unbidden, into the house and mentioning this seems to be sufficient grounds for Vivien to also hire her. Most of the time Moira is played by Frances Conroy and appears to all the other characters to look like the timid old matriarch Ruth from Six Feet Under. Unfortunately for Ben she appears to him as a searing hot vision of rootability played by Alexandra Breckenridge (True Blood) who sexes about the place in suspenders and may as well be wheeling her naked lower half about on a silver platter with a sprig of parsley on top. How will Ol' Faithless cope?

Then we have Tate, a troubled adolescent with possible homicidal urges who's being treated by Ben but has taken a shine to his daughter. He fills the role of "sensitive, tortured young man" and is consequently somewhat tedious and whiney, so let's instead focus on Larry, a gentleman whose face is a half burned a mass of Fred Krueger-style scar tissue, who can veer from amusing to sinister to pitiful at the drop of a hat. He claims that he had a wife and daughters but was compelled by the house to correct them most harshly using the great cleanser, fire, and becomes something of a thorn in Ben's side. A destructive pair of baseball bat-wielding twins crop up occasionally who are notable for their striking dual resemblance to a ranga version of MTV's Butthead (and who are presumably doomed to play frog baseball in the house for all eternity). We could go on like this with characters for some time; as the series progresses, more and more previous inhabitants of the house begin to crawl out of the woodwork, each with their own tale of tragedy and some sort of agenda. By the middle of the season, if you asked for a show of hands from everybody present who was actually alive, there wouldn't be many wrists in the air.

All this is fine because, in truth, the living characters aren't all that appealing. Ben just spends all his time mooching about looking like a haggard version of Ross from Friends and attempting to extricate himself from the web of deceit he's constructed for himself (whilst occasionally conducting sessions in which he reveals himself to be the worst psychiatrist in the whole wide world). He and Vivien seem so wrapped up in their own issues that their focus strays too often from their daughter, Violet, who is going through her own frightening voyage of discovery (the phantoms in her house aren't of the zany, whimsical Beetlejuice variety). It's the dead who, ironically, bring life to proceedings with their machinations, vendettas and melodrama.

Well used horror tropes pop up frequently but feel like welcome nods to the conventions of the genre rather than clichés and the sheer variety of classic horror scenarios being deployed means that at least a few of them are guaranteed to hit your 'H'-spot. Although, as mentioned, it shares a few things in common with True Blood (not least of which is its tendency to try to keep countless plates spinning at once) it is actually far more retrained in its application of nudity and gore. Sex and violence are the fuel on which this show's engine runs, but it often chooses the oppressive, knuckle-whitening threat of brutal violence and its painful repercussions over painting the screen red. Likewise, the entire show hinges on suppressed desire, infidelity and lust but refrains from exploding into a kaleidoscope of boobies.

There seems to be a certain measure of elasticity with regard to what exactly the physical limitations of the ghosts are, and after a while they become such a common sight as they go about their egotistic spectral business that it sort of dampens the impact of them being dead. The show compensates, however, by constantly ratcheting up the weirdness factor of the story and peeling back layer after unforeseen layer of the onion. As American Horror Story unfolds, we discover more and more about the secrets and driving forces behind the resident spectres and things spiral further and further into total insanity.
The Disc
The picture is presented in 1.78:1 and seemed, to me at least, a tiny bit oversaturated at times (although it could be argued that this harks back to the Hammer Horror look). A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is our only audio option, but the sound design is excellent and well mixed. All the incidental music in this season is a magpie mix of stuff from other classic horrors, by the way, so it can be fun to play "spot the soundtrack" as familiar airs from Psycho, Carrie and others make themselves heard.

A decent little grab-bag of extras are on offer, the most imaginative and fun of which is the Murder House Tour, which is essentially a recap of the chronology of the house done in the style of a guided tour conducted by Stan, the character who plays the tour guide in the show. Behind The Fright is a pretty bog-standard "making of" featurette in which all involved gush about the project and how gosh-darn nice everyone was to work with. Slightly more interesting is Out of the Shadows, where the cast offer their own take on the various ghosts they portray onscreen. Overture to Horror is about the making of the title sequence and involves the makers animatedly enthusing about every elemental trick and device used in every modern horror movie title sequence for God knows how long as though they were freshly unearthed nuggets of avant-garde gold. There is also a commentary on the pilot episode.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
With an abundance of colourful characters and a profusion of sordid plotlines running concurrently, it would be hard to accuse American Horror Story of being dull. In fact, this ghost train almost threatens to come off the tracks at times, such is the far out nature of the yarn. It is held in check, though, by superb performances, gripping set pieces and its sheer anything-goes gusto. What could have come across as The Amityville Horror meets The Bold and the Beautiful is actually well-executed and extremely entertaining.

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