In my review of Netflix’s delightful throwback series SLASHER, I addressed my personal caution, but ultimate curiosity about the ninth season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, “1984,” which promised a terror-filled throwback to the titular decade, my worry stemming from the fact that AHS could take a great premise and run it into the ground because it started catering to the worst impulses of showrunner Ryan Murphy and his team of writers. Then, the posters for the season started slowly bleeding out, posters that adequately nailed the eighties horror vibe that the series was going for (some of them reminding me of soft-focus stalker fare like SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE or covers for teen horror books from folks like R.L Stine or Christopher Pike). Coupling the spot-on artwork with the little commercial clips of young people being picked off by the faceless killer to hot tunes like “Suddenly, Last Summer” hammered home just how seriously Murphy and company were taking their interpretation. After having devoured the season premiere, I’m happy to say they one-hundred-percent nailed it.
From the dynamite combo of the (attempted) sex n’ slaughter cold open to the neon/pastel choked Everything Is Terrible-esque opening credits (the degraded VHS look and synth score gives the whole thing an authentic aesthetic), which call to mind the eighties montage Cold War credits of THE AMERICANS, puts the audience in the perfect frame of mind for a terrifying trip back in time. Owing to the fact that this show has a better budget (courtesy of FX) than the tax-shelter terror films they’re lovingly recreating, meaning they can both attract top-tier talent like Emma Roberts and Billie Lourd, but they can also sling popular radio cuts like Bananarama’s“Cruel Summer” (which stuck itself deep into my head and cannot be rooted out, I’m afraid) and Def Leppard’s “Photograph.” The show itself is gorgeously shot with atmospheric dusk shots of the forest practically swallowing the tiny camp nestled within. The score throbs and pulses with the death rattling gurgle of slasher films past and fits the show’s tone like a glove. And though it’s a blink and you miss it brief cameo, there’s everyone’s favorite cable repairman Horace Pinker a.k.a. Mitch Pileggi (one of the suits working at the hospital), whom I will always welcome in a horror-related program.
“Camp Redwood” is simple and straightforward, especially for AMERICAN HORROR STORY (please no aliens, thank you). The plot as it stands centers around a group of aerobicizing adolescents head out to Camp Redwood, a youth camp and site of a massive massacre fourteen years earlier by the aforementioned Mr. Jingles (the alter ego of a man called Kenneth Richter, played here by John Carroll Lynch) run by the straight-laced, straight edge, Margaret Booth, who we learn is the sole survivor of said massacre. Things are kept very inductory in the premiere: we meet our characters, we meet our future locale/bloodbath site and we see our killer escape and make his way to his former slashing grounds (along the way killing the typical harbinger of doom, this time a gas station attendant, a la THE CABIN IN THE WOODS). As you can tell, the plot in the premiere is your standard slasher fare, harkening back to cut-em-ups like THE BURNING or MADMAN more so than something like FRIDAY THE 13TH, at least that’s the vibe I’m getting from the episode (there’s even a scene where the camp counselor slayer, Mr. Jingles – named so for the clanging, cacophony of keys that accompanies his arrival – escapes from a mental asylum, the chaos afterwards feeling like a scene straight out of HALLOWEEN ‘78). I can also appreciate how the show filters in real-life things like the ’84 Summer Olympics (“if America wins a gold medal, you win a free Krusty Burger!”), the sexual revolution of hot and ready teenagers, and the bizarre shoehorning of real-life killer Richard Ramirez into the proceedings, admittedly there is at least a purpose – he scares our heroine, Brooke, into running away to the countryside to escape.
The characters are your archetypical body count building blocks that we’ve seen in every hack and slash film on the silver screen. There’s Emma Roberts as our ostensible final girl Brooke (a name that encapsulates ‘eighties teen), the virginal ingénue who doesn’t hook up or do drugs, but end up being “the girl who cried wolf” when she begins seeing dead bodies that the others don’t peep. I’ve always thought Roberts was immensely talented (her work in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER and SCREAM 4 especially), but I worried that her go-to monotonous shrill temperament that she displayed in previous Murphy fare like SCREAM QUEENS and AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN would grate, but here she feels as down to earth as the previous scream starlets before her, and has a naturalist beauty to her like the ultimate final girl before here – Laurie Strode. There’s Billie Lourd vamping it up as the sexy, leopard print vixen, Montana, whose funniest moments come from flirting with camp bohunk, Trevor (played by the world’s worst Spanish teacher himself, Matthew Morrison – another of Murphy’s stable of actors), whose look calls to mind lunkhead counselors like Paul Deangelo’s Ronnie from SLEEPAWAY CAMP or whipping out a switchblade on Roberts’ Brooke (“I have a suspicious nature”). The other fellas are your meathead horndogs (the jock, the sex fiend, the drug doling dude) and the former two only have some semblance of character building mystery to them, the latter just brings the narcotics to the party. Here’s hoping as we move forward, things will get fleshed out before their flesh get ripped up. Ditto for our snarky nurse played by POSE’s Angelica Ross and I really hope that Leslie Grossman’s Margaret doesn’t just become the stock religious nutjob (so far, it’s just her turning her nose up to these kids and their wild lifestyles), and that there will be a semblance of nuance to her character.
As we move forward, there’s admittedly a concern that Murphy and his writers will be able to propel this narrative over the course of ten episodes without stretching things thin. With writers like Tim Minear and James Wong on the docket and directors like Jennifer Lynch, I’ve putting quite a bit of faith in them. Hell, time will tell if the whole concept is left straightforward or if there’s some twist to found along the way a la THE FINAL GIRLS. There’s a lot of meat on the bone to be chewed on (the fourteen year gap between the previous massacre and the one currently underway, Mr. Jingles’/Kenneth Richter’s backstory and whether or not The Night Stalker’s presence has a purpose or he’s here for some lurid pulp to add to the narrative). Either way, I’m stoked for next week’s entry and am happy with this tremendous start to what could be my favorite season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY.
Tags: American Horror Story, Angelica Ross, Billie Lourd, Def Leppard, Emma Roberts, Jennifer Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Leslie Grossman, Matthew Morrison, Mitch Pileggi, R.L. Stine, Ryan Murphy, Television, Tim Minear, TV