Open House for Horror

Where would the horror genre be without stupid white people moving into haunted/possessed/demonized houses? Sometimes they do it on a bet. Sometimes it’s part of a psych experiment. Sometimes they don’t know they’re moving into a haunted house until after they arrive. I try to give those stupid white people the benefit of the doubt, but then they stay in the haunted house, and I lose all respect for them, sit back and watch them all die.

When the family in American Horror Story, the Harmons, take a tour of their prospective haunted house, the real estate agent informs them right away that the previous owners died in a gruesome murder/suicide in the basement. If the Harmons were from L.A., they would have asked, “Is it a finished basement?” But they’re from Boston, so they just take the house, no questions asked.

See, the Harmons are already running from some demons—of the personal kind. Vivien (Connie Britton) had a miscarriage, and husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) had an affair. Teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) cuts herself, smokes and complains a lot. So, psychiatrist Ben packs them up and moves them to Los Angeles and buys a murder house, so the family can get a fresh start.

American Horror Story is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame. He’s also directing, producing and writing, alongside frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk. So, the Glee boys are doing horror. Why not?

Kooky things start happening immediately, and even the real estate lady looks back with some remorse as she puts up the sold sign. And if a realtor in L.A. looks regretful over a sale, then you know something is wrong.

Vivien’s main objectives are to remove some wallpaper from the horrific murals in the living room and to avoid having sex with her philandering husband. Poor Ben is about to explode from sexual frustration, but he keeps trying to put the moves on Vivien, when he’s not sleepwalking, trying to start fires or masturbating. He’s also found a new patient, a psychotic boy who fantasizes about killing his classmates. It takes the boy all of two seconds to find teenage daughter Violet and strike up an appropriately creepy relationship. But when a guy walks in on you dragging a razor blade across your arm, you can pretty much skip to the third date, I think.

As Vivien is exposing more and more of the Goya-esque nightmare on the living room walls, she’s visited by the girl next door, who promptly informs her she’s going to die. Before Viv can react, the girl’s mother follows her in, and you’ll never guess who it is. Guess. Go on. Wrong! It’s Jessica Lange, who is in full-on Southern belle psycho mode. Jessica is having a ball, playing the fading Southern dame and failed Hollywood actress bit to the hilt. She also knows much more about the house and its history than she’s willing to share with the new tenants.

Also showing up on the Harmons’ doorstep is Francis Conroy, reprising her “floor-scrubbing old hag” role from Die! Mommie! Die!. She plays the maid, Moira, who comes with the house. Vivien is skeptical at first, but Moira wins her over with her dedication to all-natural cleaning. Funny thing, though, when Ben sees Moira, she’s a few decades younger, sluttier, and dedicated to au natural cleaning. You’d think he’d mention this to Viv or wonder why she’d hire a hottie maid to tempt him, but he lets it go. If this were Glee, he’d just sing a song about it and then they’d just drop that unanswered plot point forever.

Vivien finally uncovers the freaky-ass murals in the living room, which provide the perfect backdrop for a long overdue fight with Ben. Which then leads to long overdue makeup sex. Aw, they’re gonna make it after all, those two. There may be crazies next door, a dead woman cleaning the floor, a basement full of nightmares and an attic full of bondage gear, but surely the Harmons will find a way to make this hell house a home.

American Horror Story borrows a lot from Stephen King, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, and not just in terms of story and characters, but also in production design and atmosphere. But, as I always say, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. (Actually, I stole that line from someone else.) There’s DNA from The Shining, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr., Blair Witch and every haunted house movie ever. But is it scary? Right now, I’d say it’s creepy and kooky, if not all-together ookey. Whether it becomes nightmare-inducing remains to be seen. I guess I’ll find out tonight.

Still, it’s an intriguing subject, and doing the haunted house drama as a series brings up a lot of interesting possibilities. Will they stay in the house? Will they solve the mystery and defeat the demons/ghosts/Jessica Lange? How do you take a short-form story and turn it into a long-form series? It’s an interesting enough premise to lure me back at least once or twice more.

Plus, the fact that Dylan McDermott spends a good portion of the program naked doesn’t hurt, either.

American Horror Story airs on Wednesdays on FX and is available on iTunes.