American Horror Story, Ep. 4.02: “Massacres and Matinees” proves the fun of camp

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American Horror Story, Season 4, Episode 2: “Massacres and Matinees”
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Tim Minear
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET on FX

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are going for pure camp in the current season of American Horror Story, and it’s working quite well.

Despite the somewhat stately pace of the season premiere “Monsters Among Us,” the sheer inanity of the action happening onscreen created an off-the-wall vibe. Whether it was the special talents afforded by Jimmy’s syndactyly, Ethel’s beard and bizarre accent, or Elsa singing a song that wasn’t released until 20 years after the show’s setting, Murphy and Falchuk made it clear that, in true “freak show” fashion, spectacle would be given precedent over logic. In this week’s “Massacres and Matinees,” the bonkers factor is raised a notch, as is the fun.

The inane feel continues to work well for the show, particularly when it comes to Twisty’s scenes. His brutal killing in the cold open is a cleverly teased out horror sequence. The tension builds progressively, as the unnamed clerk discovers a trail of blood, followed by the head of his boss, and climaxing with his beheading at the hands of Twisty. The ominous music and succession of close-ups help prepare the viewer for the brutal impact of the murder that punctuates the scene.

The addition of the magician Dell (Michael Chiklis) and the tri-breasted hermaphrodite Desiree (Angela Bassett) to the cast only help to further the insanity onscreen. Dell is a career showman, and his charisma, played with an exaggerated glee by Chiklis, makes him a magnetic presence to watch, no matter what he’s doing. Bassett establishes Desiree as a strong presence who understands the power of her sexuality and is unafraid to use it to get what she wants. The interplay between the two makes for an entertaining addition to the wackiness of the season.

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Unfortunately, allowing space for all of this wackiness means making compromises elsewhere, and in this case it’s resulted in shallow character exposition that favors brevity over nuance. Writer Tim Minear has his characters speak in banal platitudes that clearly expose their intentions without giving them any psychological depth. Likewise, he also sets up dichotomies that are too obvious to have any emotional poignancy. A primary example of this can be found in the relationship between Dell and Desiree, which, though fun to watch, feels too pristinely planned out to resonate. When Dell declares the strength of their marriage and proclaims himself “The happiest man on earth” immediately following a flashback in which he’s shown killing a man with whom Desiree was cheating on him with, the viewer understands clearly that Dell can’t be trusted, but the point isn’t delivered with enough subtlety to have any impact. That Dell makes a living deceiving audience members only makes this more obvious (a la the connection between Don Draper’s career as an advertiser and his fidelity issues on Mad Men), to the extent that it alienates the viewer. The cost of a life like Dell’s appears to be a budding theme of this season, especially given Elsa’s ironic denunciation to the twins about people who “get their confidence from feeding off others’ self doubt,” but its one that’s being proclaimed too loudly to have emotional resonance.

The same is true of the relationship between Twisty and Dandy, which, like Dell and Desiree’s relationship, doesn’t keep it from being a lot of fun to watch unfold. Despite not having any physical deformities, Dandy seems to be more challenged emotionally than many of the “freaks.” This leads to him feeling a kinship with Twisty, who’s relegated to the fringes of society due to his appearance and proclivities. Dandy sees Twisty as an outcast like himself, and appears to hope to find some sort of emotional connection with him, albeit an incredibly twisted one. This makes for an intriguing idea, but once again it’s thrust too heavily on the viewer to draw out any sort of empathy.

Still, none of this keeps this episode, and the season, from being the trashy sort of fun that it is. As with “Monsters Among Us,” “Massacres and Matinees” is gorgeously shot, and it utilizes horror movie tropes without feeling derivative. By recasting the tropes, Murphy and Falchuk are sending them up to a certain extent, but their appropriation is less of a cruel satire and more of a loving homage.

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