It’s always great to see the horror genre explored in television. Shows like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files and Fringe have been fore-runners in the attempt to bring horror to the small screen.
However, it seems that the producers of American television, as well as the network executives have always been reluctant to deliver something that is truly horror. Whether this is due to the expectations of reduced viewing figures for a genre that they consider to be undersubscribed when it comes to TV, or whether it is simply that they believed that to be truly horrific, they would have to break the boundaries of acceptible content for TV, I think their fears should really have been put to bed by now.
The shows mentioned above often hinted at horror. They are full of suspense and thrills and contain a little gore here and there, but in essence, they are all still really more science fiction than anything else and are rarely (if ever) scary.
Most forays into this genre in the past have failed mainly due to the limitations placed upon the shows by either the producers, the networks or simply by the rules that stated what was acceptible for TV. Who can say how much more successful American Gothic or Kingdom Hospital may have been with less of these restrictions in place? But, with the introduction of independant TV channels and the relaxing of some of these rules, more recently we have seen some much more full-blooded attempts at true horror. Dexter and The Walking Dead are prime examples of how this genre can be presented to a television audience. Neither show has fallen into the traps of cliched characters, predictable plots, cheesy editing leading to glimpses of dodgy monsters in questionable make-up … etc
I wish the same could be said of American Horror Story.
There have been quite a few positive reviews of this show in recent weeks, some even hailing it as the “best new show of 2011“. I have to disagree.
OK, the show has only just begun, so we have had a lot of exposition and introduction of characters … That, I can put up with. But the elements of this show that I am finding hard to stomach are those very cliches, telegraphed storylines and annoying, dated editing/direction techniques that were fairly antiquated even back in the 1980′s. Maybe the creative team behind the show are going for that cheesy horror feel on purpose. Maybe they are fully aware of their use of cliche and outdated horror devices … but it seems unlikely.
The pilot introduces us to the typical horror-story family. Husband and wife in a troubled marriage. Moody kid that self-harms and fights the other kids in school. This textbook horror story family is right in the middle of the textbook horror story situation of moving into a new house in a new city. And yes, the house is haunted. The pilot plays out amongst plot elements lifted directly from countless horror movies. Most obvious references include The Shining, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Strangers, Amityville Horror, Hellraiser … even Twin Peaks. In fact, it is difficult to find anything in this show that is actually unique. Even the more unusual device of the maid appearing physically different depending on which character is looking at her is not all that rare.
The direction itself is also pretty unimaginative. The shots of the huge house looming over us, the shots looking down from the rafters as our characters enter the house, the shots of the daughter in the basement as we view her from behind objects, suggesting she is being watched. It all seems just way too formulaic. I understand that for producer, writer and director Brad Falchuk, this is his first attempt at horror, and he may be thinking that he can’t go wrong with tried-and-tested methods of old, but I still feel that the overuse of these all-too-obvious techniques will only hurt the show in the long run.
This overall feeling that you have seen it all before makes it very difficult to become immersed into the story – and this means that the “scary” parts fail to have any real impact. From the opening scene of the young twin boys being killed, right throught to the strobe-filled scene toward the end of the pilot where we get tiny glimpses of some boney hands and bloody teeth, the “scares” don’t really deliver the intended effect. The script doesn’t really help matters. Rather clunky dialogue throughout, even when it’s not serving as a device for filling us in on the house’s past, or that of it’s new occupants.
The redeeming factor comes with the acting. The central characters are potrayed surprisingly well. The depth of character provided by the clunky dialogue actually makes their outbursts and psychoses more believable. Even in the pilot, the husband/wife/daughter team played by Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Taissa Farmiga come across as a tight unit that seems very promising for future episodes.
The inclusion of elements that would not have been allowed up to a few years ago (namely gore and the odd sexual scene) also suggests that the show may provide something different once the surprisingly average overall plot has been fully set up. Hopefully, they will not focus too much on the creepy maid and neighbours, spelling out their involvement in the deaths of the house’s previous owners. The hints so far have been more than enough.
So, with that in mind, I think this is a show that I will give more of a chance to develop. Hopefully, within the next 3 episodes there will be more than the glimmer of something unique. I see a lot of potential, but none really realized as yet. If you’re a fan of horror, I have no doubt you will enjoy the show for what it is. But if you’re like me and are always looking for some kind of advancement within the genre and unique content, you may be disappointed – at least with the first couple of episodes.
Watch/DVR/Forget = DVR