American Horror Story Episodes 1.01, “Pilot”/1.02, “Home Invasion”
Written by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk
Directed by Ryan Murphy (1.01) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (1.02)
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
The creators of FX’s new American Horror Story have already crammed two seasons’ worth of story arcs into the series’ first two episodes. Unlike some of today’s more critically-acclaimed dramas, “Horror Story” moves with a frenetic pace, devoting only a few seconds to any one shot. At times it works. Many times it doesn’t. Regardless of the obvious pacing problems, the show still proves very entertaining.
The pilot opens in 1978, introducing the first, regular character, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), an ominous girl who with Down’s syndrome playing in front of an abandoned house in the suburbs. She warns a pair of approaching twin brothers not to enter the house. Wielding baseball bats, they intend to wreak havoc on the empty home. Ignoring her, they proceed to smash as much of the inside of the house before exploring the basement. It doesn’t end well for them. As quickly as the opener plays out, it is perhaps the slowest-paced scene in the cloud of exposition that follows.
The story jumps to the present and introduces the Harmon family, Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). After Vivien learns of Ben’s infidelity with his psychiatry student, all three move from Boston to Los Angeles to salvage the family. This could already fill an episode, but the story quickly moves to the Harmons moving into their new house, the same one from the opening sequence.
From this point, the show introduces a series of off kilter characters, including the intrusive neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange) who’s also the mother of a now-grown Adelaide. Lange plays Constance with an eerie confidence, serving as a dominant presence and unwanted addition to the home’s baggage. It is clear she poses a threat, but how is still uncertain.
The rest of the pilot touches on a variety of story points, barely spending enough time on any one plotline to fully allow the audience to digest it all. As the Harmons settle in, they experience a series of spooky encounters, mainly through the neighborhood characters that all share a bond with the house.
The second episode opens again in the house and again in the past, this time in 1968, showing a more gruesome murder than the pilot’s opening that also took place in the house. The story then shifts back to the present, joining Ben with a new patient, Bianca (Mageina Tovah), who’s fixated on the house’s murder-ridden past. Ben then receives a call from his ex-lover (Kate Mara), informing him that she’s pregnant. Ben makes up an excuse to travel back to Boston to help support her through an abortion.
With Ben gone, Bianca and her friends break into the house, aiming to recreate the episode’s opening murder sequence with Vivien and Violet. Like the pilot, there many more plot points that decorate the main story with scares and tension. Fortunately, it works.
The scares are legitimately spooky. Though the show borrows heavily from many horror subgenres (slasher, supernatural, monster, psychological), it abandons the cheap jump scares often employed by classics of the canon. Yes, there are a few jump moments, but the scares that resonate are those that play out slowly. In episode two, Adelaide breaks into the house, goes to the basement and rolls a ball into the shadows, giggling at apparently nothing. When Ben finds her, he escorts her back up the stairs. At this point, when no one is looking, the ball rolls slowly back out from the shadows. It’s simple, but effective.
The psychological terror works well, but the show also successfully embodies the slasher tradition, especially with episode two. There are some surprisingly violent and cringe-worthy moments. The show avoids excessive gore and still manages to shock due to the dramatic atmosphere at the story. Much like its genre contemporary, AMC’s The Walking Dead, this show revolves around character-driven drama. So, while following the marital problems of Ben and Vivien, the horror mythology almost seems like a bonus.
Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton play it safe with their respective roles as Ben and Vivien. As quickly as the show moves, it still has their characters stuck in an emotional rut. So far, there hasn’t been much for them to do. Jessica Lange, however, completely devotes herself to the crazy nature of her character Constance. Every scene she’s in raises the tension exponentially. As sweet as Lange’s character was in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, the fact that she plays Constance as well she does is unsettling in itself.
The show’s greatest asset, besides Jessica Lange, is its potential. What the show needs to do now is slow down and let the actors shine in the incredibly rich world that series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have crafted. Holding back on the mythology for an episode would be a smart move. For the next few weeks, if the writers can work out the pacing problems and avoid the horror genre clichés, American Horror Story could easily develop into an exciting and endearing addition to the fall schedule.