Ryan Murphy returns with a stripped-down and effective American Horror Story 6
In a way, tonight’s premiere of American Horror Story 6 felt like the premiere of a brand new series. Take away the famous faces, and the hour felt nothing like a standard episode of the Emmy-winning horror anthology series. That’s probably the best news for audiences and Emmy voters who largely treated Hotel like a red-headed stepchild. That season and most before it equated exquisite costuming and gorgeous production designs with gore and sex. Most episodes dazzled thanks to their visual style, but even fans would agree that, sometimes, it just didn’t add up. True scares often felt like an afterthought, a shame for a horror series.
Enter American Horror Story 6.
The new season immediately plunges the audience in a David Lynchian world where different actors play the same characters (Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, reportedly directs “Chapter 3,” according to Wikipedia). In a more literal sense, Lily Rabe (AHS 1-5) and Andre Holland (The Knick) narrate the pilot as a docudrama apparently called “My Roanoke Nightmare.” That may or may not be the actual subtitle of the series, but nothing here is certain. The docudrama depicts their fleeing of Los Angeles and eventual purchase of an abandoned house near the coast of North Carolina. Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr., star as the couple within the re-creation.
Despite shifting in and out of the narrative with voice-over work, the central story begins to settle into a blend of home invasions with a heavy dose of old fashioned haunted house. Paulson begins to encounter possibly supernatural events that escalate by the end of the episode, which takes on a very specific Blair Witch sheen. The new season boasts a stripped down look and feel, and, while the production design is still effective, most of the scarier scenes are lit with dim candlelight.
I’m going to hold judgment on the series until I’ve seen more of it. Did I like the pilot? Yes. It’s an intense hour with at least three great jump-out-of-your seat moments. Additionally, the cast works wonders with the traditional haunted house material. I, for one, am thrilled to see Angela Bassett get a really meaty role at the start. However, there is this shrill, nagging voice in the back of my head telling me the docudrama-style narration is intrusive and works against the tense atmosphere, but the jury’s out on that. Clearly, Murphy wants to push American Horror Story into a The Jinx or Making a Murderer direction by relying on similar filmmaking techniques. I’m just not sure how effective that would be over an entire season.
But for now, I’m fully on board with American Horror Story 6. I appreciate the stripped down, back-to-basics approach that make this season feel more like Murder House. And, for the first time in a while, the series holds a certain sense of mystique about it, something sorely lacking in recent years. It has an unknown quality where we can’t immediately imagine what to expect over subsequent episodes. Two of my ADTV colleagues posited each episode of the season would be different from the last, and, after the pilot, that’s a very smart possibility.
Overall, this appears to be a leaner, meaner American Horror Story. One that plays a little harder to get on the first date rather than the full spread-eagle approach of past seasons. Has Ryan Murphy finally learned a sense of discipline and constraint? That would be the biggest shock of all. Time will tell…