UK TV review: American Horror Story: 1984
Martyn Conterio | On 23, Nov 2019
The problem more than a few detractors have had with American Horror Story, maybe less so when it first began, is its default setting for OTT theatrics. Each season comes in this flavour, this same vein of delivery. By Season 2, the generally revered Asylum, it’d already reached something of an apotheosis of form. It peaked too soon.
Now on its ninth rodeo, what was once wired has become increasingly seen as a bit tired. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, series co-creators, have stuck rigidly to their specified tone as if it were an article of creative faith, crafting variations of it (some might add with diminishing returns) for nearly a decade. There have been highlights since, of course. Hotel remains underappreciated and Apocalypse delivered the goods by bringing together plot strands from Murder House (S1) and Coven (S3). Fans rejoiced when Murphy convinced American Horror Story’s original scream queen, Jessica Lange, to return for a special episode as Constance from Season 1’s Murder House.
If you thought the scripts have an air of ‘let’s make it up as we go along’ about them, you would be mistaken. The details might need colouring in by staff writers, but it’s clear enough each season has an outline and specific trajectory. Murphy and Falchuk have demonstrated, too, how every season is connected and exists in the same universe. What we’re getting is a carefully woven tapestry of febrile American madness and ghoulish thrills, a compendium of nightmare narratives pitched as the meeting point between James Whale camp and Grand Guignol. Ultimately, it’s either something you dig and occasional forgive, or you give it a hard pass.
American Horror Story has always been impeccably cast. Chockful of superb character actors with a keen gift for black comedy, the show has delivered plenty of memorable creations down the years – Dandy Mott, Bloody Face, James Patrick March, the Countess, Sister Mary Eunice, Madison Montgomery, to name a few. In recent times, series stalwarts Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters have bailed, but Murphy and Falchuk found excellent replacements in Billie Lourd and Leslie Grossman, while Emma Roberts’ return to the fold, after a stretch sitting out, has been a major success.
The first ace up American Horror Story: 1984’s sleeve is its barnstorming retro titles sequence and synth-heavy rendition of the theme tune Tom Waits could have written. Recalling the spoof trailers that played before the Tarantino-Rodriguez double-header, Grindhouse (2007), it absolutely nails the period with tongue-in-cheek relish, especially the slasher’s grotty sexualised violence. This year’s title sequence is a mini-masterpiece in montage and satirical imagery all by itself. There’s more good news, folks: as is often a complaint aimed at the series, American Horror Story’s fixation on being over the top tends to run out of steam as the going gets spooky. Here, however, the setting (a summer camp with a bloody past) works well in focussing the story, as does the limited number of characters. At first, you’ll rightly wonder how this is going to be stretched out to seven or eight hours of slasher storytelling, but the length of episodes has been parred back significantly (often to just over or around 35 minutes of running time).
Does it even need saying that the AHS: 1984 plot is completely doolally? It might be getting its slasher rocks off, but the story takes us into surprising emotional territory, becoming a tale of redemption enfused with a poignant sting of melancholy. It’s also frequently hilarious, with Leslie Grossman and Billie Lourd getting the lion’s share of zingers.
Supremely gory and maintaining suspense throughout, even when it starts getting weirder, Lourd is fast becoming the show’s most valuable player, while newcomer Cody Fern is equally entertaining as a reluctant gay-for-pay porn star and aerobics enthusiast caught up with his friends in a fight for their lives. Grossman’s dweeby Margaret Booth, a summer camp leader and survivor of a maniac known as Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch), is an absolute hoot and newcomer Angelica Ross shines as a psychologist with a tragic past hatching a diabolical experiment in terror. In all, American Horror Story: 1984 will go down as a particularly strong entry.
The final few episodes of American Horror Story: 1984 are available on FOX UK. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.