Fall TV Preview

In Review: Does FX's American Horror Story Have the Fright Stuff?

Is the American Horror Story Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are about to tell a page-turner or a stomach-churner? A bit of both? This much is certain: The new FX series, premiering tonight at 10/9c, is certainly one polarizing piece of fright fare.

American Horror Story: Watch the First Five Minutes

Horror Story stars Dylan McDermott (The Practice) and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) as Ben and Vivien Harmon, a couple that has decided to put past demons to rest by moving cross-country with their teen daughter (played by Taissa Farmiga) to inhabit a house that apparently comes pre-furnished with demons of its own. As is fast (and repeatedly) established, this home over the many, many years has played host to any many, many grisly murders and disturbing rituals — and the Harmons seem poised to become the latest victims of its darkness.

Ben is a shrink, so for good measure his at-home practice seems to draw in the fantastically troubled, from a teen boy who has dreams of dispatching his school full of peers to a young woman who is haunted — and yet not, really — by visions of being cleaved in half by an elevator.

And yes, it is depicted for the viewer exactly how one gets dismembered in such a manner — because AHS is not at all shy about being in your face with its unsettling images, psycho-sexual tropes and a palpably frightful atmosphere (especially if one is to brave… the basement, with its jars full of fetuses and such).

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The Harmons arrive at their new ‘stead with not just movers’ boxes but also all kinds of sordid baggage, from Ben’s deplorable infidelity with a much younger woman to Viven’s tragic loss of the last child she carried. These two have unresolved issues, and soon enough the eerie goings-on prompt them to unleash them, verbally, in a two-way harangue that will make you uneasy with its text, subtext and tone. (It is in this scene, for one, that Britton brings her Emmy-nommed FNL skills to the table, making the hyper-real seems heart-wrenchingly real.)

Were more time spent on the Harmons and what their not-quite-as-scary East Coast life has been about to date, Horror Story would be more compelling from the get-go. Instead, from the very first frame — a flashback to 1978 involving two punk-ass ginger boys and a little girl with Down Syndrome who warns them they are about to, you know, die — the narrative keeps the noisy scares coming fast and often, and always so, so dark.

The only “light” moments to be had come courtesy of Academy Award winner Jessica Lange, playing the aforementioned girl’s mother, a Southern-fried belle from Hollywood’s yesteryear, a onetime actress who had to cut her career short and still seems rather bitter about it. Lange is obviously having a very good time with the role, to the point that one half expects Britton to break mid-scene as Vivien is subject to this nutty neighbor’s first exposition dump, told as colorfully as it is.

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Also on hand for the bedlam is True Blood‘s Denis O’Hare, playing a former resident of the house whom we now call “Larry the burn guy” — which is kinda self-explanatory once you see his half-melted punim. Larry shares with Ben not so much a cautionary tale but a set-up for another flashback sequence rife with skin-crawling chills.

There’s a lot being thrown at the wall in Horror Story, and I haven’t even gotten to the sexually aggressive mystery person/entity in the rubber gimp costume, Ben’s tendency to walk around the house as naked as an Ashton Kutcher (yes, Dylan, we can see that you’ve been working out), or the bully at the daughter’s school who stands to receive quite the horrific comeuppance. Nor did I mention Six Feet Under matriarch Frances Conroy’s turn as the house’s “built-in” housekeeper who — fun fact! — appears to Ben (and apparently only to Ben) in the guise of the comely Alexandra Breckenridge. What’s fantasy, what’s reality? AHS, even a few episodes in, hasn’t really paused or cared to steer us either way. Why don’t the Harmons think to move out, after five too many brushes with terror? You’ll have to wait almost two full episodes for that burning question to be raised, then addressed.

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Again, I say: This is a lot to process, and how you choose to do so will determine whether you enjoy this sprawling horror story for its unbridled bombasticness or close the book on it one chapter in. But this much is true: Murphy and Falchuck are determined to scare you, freak you out, and perhaps even make you stay up for the comparatively happy-shiny 11 o’clock news to cool down. Yes, there are times during the first few episodes where I was wondering “But what does this all mean?,” but I consider myself on board for this twisty, twisted ride. I’ll be most curious to hear everyone’s thoughts on Thursday morning.