American Horror Story, Ep. 4.01: “Monsters Among Us” fascinating, repulsive, and oddly touching

American Horror Story, Season 4, Episode 1: “Monsters Among Us”american_horror_story_66996
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Ryan Murphy
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 PM on FX

The fourth season of American Horror Story starts off with a stunning cold open amidst a quaint farmhouse. After stumbling upon a gruesome crime scene, a milkman makes an even more shocking discovery in a rural home. It’s difficult to remember an episode of AHS in which the camera work is so effective as it is here. “Monsters Among Us,” directed by show creator Ryan Murphy, prefers to keep things hidden off-screen. Rather than show the audience what it is, we instead get a series of gasps, some startling sound effects and a series of shots that are framed to enhance the suspense. “Monsters Among Us” keeps viewers guessing until after the spectacular opening credits (complete with the stop-motion animation and altered music), before it pulls the curtain up on conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler. Ever playful, Murphy’s visuals are – concealing, and yet telling.

The new season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, is set in 1952 in the town of Jupiter, Florida. It stars Jessica Lange as a German ex-patriot Elsa Mars – a fame-seeking Marlene Dietrich poser in charge of a near bankrupt freak show called Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Elsa also appears to have a sideline in smut films, filming drug-fueled orgies to perhaps pay the bills. Elsa hungers for the spotlight as a popular singer and she sees her freaks (who she lovingly calls her monsters) as a gateway to stardom. She at once loves her carnies yet she uses them all the same. “My monsters wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Elsa says echoing Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – but it doesn’t take long for us to realize this statement isn’t true.

In “Monsters Among Us” the theme of dreams comes up repeatedly. If there is one scene that fully shows Elsa’s depressing state of mind, it is the cabaret singers theatrically and so visually expressive rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ before a nearly empty house. The climax becomes the focal point of the episode and underlines what seems to be the central theme of the season. “Life On Mars” is a song about how our entertainment has become so all-encompassing and important that our very lives have begun to mimic it. Many folks believe the song is about a young girl from a dysfunctional home who escapes her life through movies. Throughout Bowie’s song, the singer looks down upon the idea of escapism through entertainment. The “Life On Mars” interlude is outrageous, but it raises a point. “Stars never pay,” Elsa tells the waitress of Jupiter’s local diner, and her Dietrich fixation demonstrates her belief that she should be a star. As someone points out, Elsa is living in her own dream, but every so often she snaps back into reality as revealed by the episode’s bitter end. If last season was meant to be a celebration of womanhood/feminism, Freak Show is much more about the way society consumes celebrity of all kinds. Much like Coven, Freakshow uses pop music to enhance the characters and their state of mind. But while Coven’s mix-tape was essentially a collection of Stevie Nicks hits, Freak Show looks to expand its pop sounds by including such tracks as “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” by Patti Page and “Down at the Beach” by The Pentagons.

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In the past, American Horror Story has gleefully dealt with threads relating to more socially conscious aspects of society, and although subtlety isn’t a tool at its disposal, that frankness has become the show’s defining characteristic. In each season, audiences get to follow a group of outsiders and are forced to reevaluate their perspective on them as the story unfolds. You wouldn’t be wrong to criticize AHS as mean spirited, and a show willing to humiliate and torment its characters at any given time. But AHS has always been a series that celebrates the underdog, and that might be the main reason for its success. For a series as unsettling as AHS, it sure can be optimistic. “Monsters Among Us” hints that this season might end in a happier place than its predecessors.

American Horror Story: Freak Show kick-started its run by introducing us all to most of this season’s cast of characters. While Jessica Lange may get top billing, the star player for my money is once again Sarah Paulson. Recruited into the freak show by Elsa after escaping the hospital, Bette and Dot make the most fascinating character(s). Though telepathically connected, Dot and Bette are portrayed as polar opposites. Bette longs to explore the outside world; she wants freedom – she is sweeter, and far more sexual. Dot on the other hand is the curmudgeon of the conjoined – bossy, mean and prudish. Murphy presents the conflict raging within the sisters with great use of split screen, no doubt inspired by Brian DePalma’s Sisters. At times Murphy gives us two different points of view for Paulson, one for Bette and one for Dot, and at times, they are featured in one frame. They are as much apart as they are stuck together. Duality looks to be a major motif this season, and Dot and Bette are just the start.

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American Horror Story is known for having eccentric characters stuck in wildly bizarre situations. Bette and Dot are but only one two members of a cast of dozens. Elsa’s carnies also include bearded lady Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) and her son Jimmy the Lobster Boy (Evan Peters), who dresses like Marlon Brando in The Wild One but has deformed hands that are perfect for pleasuring housewives at Tupperware parties. Murphy also cast Guinness World Record holder Jyoti Amge, the world’s smallest woman. The 20 year-old Amge hails from Nagpur, India, and was the subject of the 2009 documentary Body Shock: Two Foot High Teen. Her restricted height is due to a genetic disorder called achondroplasia, and she is not expected to grow any taller. Other cast members soon to have more screen time include the fortune teller Maggie Esmerelda, the three breasted Desiree Dupree and Dell Toledo, the Freak Show’s strong man, to name a few. AHS has always featured characters who have been judged unfairly, ridiculed or persecuted simply because they are different. But unlike the 1932 American Pre-Code horror film about sideshow performers titled Freaks, AHS already paints these carnies as terrible people who don’t bat an eye when doing terrible things. In Todd Browing’s masterpiece, it isn’t the physically deformed who are the monsters but rather two of the seemingly “normal” members of the circus group who conspire to murder a colleague, and obtain his large inheritance. In Freak Show, it is the reverse, which begs to ask, who are we to root for? By the end of the premiere, lobster-handed Jimmy whips the other carnies into an angry mob and leads them in the gruesome mass butchering of the detective. As with Coven, all of the characters have big ambitions that fuel them, but there’s no sense that any of these characters are especially heroic.

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Last but not least is the hulking killer clown, who is strangely the tamest aspect of the series so far. The clown, silent but brutal, seems there only to fulfill the titular horror quotient. As it turns out, Twisty has been going around killing various residents of Jupiter and abducting their children along the way. Why? Well that’s a mystery for a future episode, but there does seem to be something more to his killing spree than simply sadism. Only time will tell.

AHS has always been interested in the experiences of marginalized people in small settings. Season one titled Murder House, was contained entirely within a haunted house; Asylum (the best and most disturbing season) focused on all the inhabitants of an asylum – and last season titled Coven, was about a group of witches living in a boarding school. No doubt the carnival serves as the series’ most interesting setting yet, but the season still has ways to go to gain my approval. For a show that runs through horror tropes with the speed of a Platinum Dunes production, “Monsters Among Us” prefers to take its time and set the stage. At times fascinating, repulsive, and oddly touching, “Monsters Among Us” shows potential, but it is still too early to tell if the season will be interested in exploring the freaks inside everyone, or simply aiming to shock and nothing more.

 

– Ricky D

Other thoughts:

I love the opening credits.

What’s with the accents this season?

Finn Wittrock’s Dandy is a spoiled brat, but his character has me most intrigued.

 So in the universe of the show, we must assume that David Bowie didn’t write “Life on Mars”?

Wouldn’t it be great if David Bowie made a cameo appearance this season?

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