Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Horror Story: Murder House

Photo: 1120 Winchester Place, Los Angeles, CA.  This is the real house used in the series.  From the show's Wikipedia page

I decided to view Season One of American Horror Story after viewing Season Two and liking it so much.  Season One was also good, though not as much as Season Two.  The writers seemed to have written themselves out of the main characters, as the secondary ones take over here, and where they go is interesting, but since they're already dead, you care less about them as characters.

At first the very dysfunctional family of husband, wife and (suicidal) high school daughter move into this (very) haunted house.  Turns out, the house has many ghosts in it: a gay couple, murdered fewer than three years before the current occupants; a surgeon who can't pay his bills, and the wife who shot him, and then herself; one of his freelance abortion patients; and, most dangerously, a teenage psychopath who had killed many students in his school before he was shot in his bedroom by the police.  He's a very angry, or still-psychotic, ghost who later kills the gay couple (and does something really nasty to one of them with a fireplace poker), and later rapes the mother, a current occupant, who later dies giving birth to what the show insinuates is Satan's spawn.  Was the killer used by Satan, or was he evil to begin with?  Or both?  The viewer can decide, but the characters themselves conclude that he is just pure evil, and the Devil's spawn angle is downplayed, though never really done away with.  And there are many, many other ghosts I haven't written about here, some of whom have little, if anything, to do.

Therein lies the problem of the first season: the writing in the last six episodes or so meanders, and seems very unsure of itself as it does so.  The Black Dahlia is introduced without reason, more as an homage to the L.A. noir style itself, and maybe James Ellroy, who famously wrote about her, and who infamously said she may his mother, or that her killer may have been his father, or both, I forget.  Other homages include Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, in the sense that the movie's music is played in almost every episode.  Other movies in the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Southern Gothic modes, as well as lots of Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and the like are paid homage as well.  Part of the joy of the series is catching and appreciating all of them.  You don't have to know them, though, to appreciate the series.

But back to the uneven writing.  What to do with the family?  Well, the writers didn't seem to know, either.  What to do with the many very unhappy ghosts?  In a nice twist, the family of ghosts ends up a much happier trio together than they ever did while they were alive.  Is the American family unit the "horror story" of the title?  It certainly seems that way, except the adults are so caught up in their own garbage that they don't even realize their daughter is dead.  (Though, to be fair, she doesn't know this, either, until she's told.)  The most wacky thing to me was that none of the ghosts seems to care too much that they're dead.  This is especially true of the father at the end, who is the only one left alive, and who seems to have the most to live for--his new child.  When he's killed by the ghost of his very young mistress (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara, from The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo), he seems mildly chagrined, at most.  The mother also doesn't seem to mind, though she knows she's without at least one of her newborns (she's told the first one died, but it didn't, and that's the one she ultimately ends up caring for); she also doesn't know her daughter's dead until her daughter visits her and says to let go of the pain, which the mother does.  (This seemed like too much of a condoning of suicide for me, which is how the daughter died, as well.)  Anyway, if the characters don't seem to take their lives very seriously, how can the viewer?

And that's the whole point at the end: the series creator's don't want you to feel sad for the family, and you don't, as they're clearly happier and better off than they had been.

How does it want you to feel about the Jessica Lange character, the devious and unsaintly and witchy neighbor who had lived in the house with her psychotic son, her wayward husband, her loose maid and her other two children, all of whom die before the very end?  Well, good and bad, in turns, though at the end she's gotten what she's asked for--a grandchild--but does she really want to take care of Satan's spawn?  I don't know, though I doubt it.  Jessica Lange does great work with a meandering role that makes her a victim and a killer.  You feel badly for her, because most of her siblings are dead and/or psychotic (and, in one case, both), but you also see her kill her husband, their maid, and almost the daughter next door.  In that last case, the daughter and her mother are victims of three psychotic people who want to kill them as others had been killed in the house.  Luckily, one of them eats the poisoned cupcake meant for the daughter,'s an example of the meandering.  Turns out, this entire series of events was unnecessary to the outcome of the whole thing.

So, at the end, this was like a good horror movie.  Riveting and sometimes creepy while watching it, but the second you think about the whole thing afterwards, it is very easy to see its many flaws.  But, if you haven't seen any of it yet, I do recommend it, especially if you're knowledgeable about the genres it pays homage to.

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