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Don't Stop Bereaving: From The Gleeful To The Ghostly In American Horror Story
Terry Staunton , November 4th, 2011 13:31

American Horror Story is a haunted house yarn that pays homage to a terrifying past, says Terry Staunton

When your last TV series has proved to be not only a ratings-grabber but a momentum-fuelled phenomenon spawning multi-million music sales, concert tours and a big screen spin-off, you can pretty much write your own ticket when it comes to deciding what to do next.

Love it or loathe it, in two short years Glee has established itself as part of the fabric of 21st century popular culture. Beyond its haul of six Emmys, four Golden Globes (not to mention a clean sweep of six gongs at last year’s Gay People’s Choice Awards), songs from the show have, at the time of writing, just a few weeks into Season Three, notched up 36 million downloads and 11 million CD sales.

Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk can, to a degree, leave the engine ticking over on its own for a while, as they midwife their new series, the spine-tingling and atmospheric American Horror Story, which begins its UK run on the FX channel on November 7. At a stretch, the show does exploit familiar Glee territory, but whereas the misfits and social outcasts of William McKinley High are prone to burst into Madonna medleys to ease their woes, the troubled teens of American Horror Story indulge in Columbine-like massacre dreams or dabble in drugs and self-harm.

Disaffected youth is only one component of the series, though, as is the fragile marriage of its two lead characters Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton), for the true star of the show is an imposing old mansion in the suburbs of Los Angeles. This is where the Harmons move from Boston to start afresh after psychologist Ben’s ill-judged affair with one of his patients and Vivien’s traumatic miscarriage, but the skeletons in the couple’s own closets have nothing on what lies within the walls of their new home.

It’s a “murder house”, you see, and not just the site of one historical grisly killing, but of several horrific slayings over the years (each episode opens with a self-contained vignette about the property’s ghoulish past, ie 1968, 1978, 1983, etc). The victims may be long buried, but their spirits remain, making doors and windows rattle in the dead or night or, more sinisterly, in the form of folk the Harmons assume are their neighbours or new employees.

What are we to make of the histrionic and unhinged retired actress Constance from next door (Jessica Lange, channelling Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond), or taciturn elderly housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy, aka Fisher family matriarch Ruth in Six Feet Under), the latter seen through Ben’s eyes as a stockings-and-suspenders youthful filly with little control over the buttons of her uniform? And what about smart-mouthed borderline psychotic patient Tate (Evan Peters)? Mere mortals don’t usually shape-shift in shabby basements...

In truth, some of the dialogue exchanges in the opening episode are even creakier than the floorboards of the family’s new home; Tate and the Harmons’ equally unhappy daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) debate whether to listen to Morrissey or Kurt Cobain, while Vivien’s gynaecologist crassly likens her post-miscarriage body to (you’ve probably guessed it) an old house: “You can fix the tiles and the bathroom and the kitchen, but if the foundation is decaying you’re wasting your time.”

On the plus side, however, it looks splendid, cinematographer Christopher Baffa’s choices of lens and colour palettes constantly referencing classic 1970s big screen fright fests (The Amityville Horror, Halloween, The Shining), the visual shorthand speedily establishing a sense of something wicked just around the corner. It’s genuinely spooky stuff, intentionally open-ended and, like the house it revolves round, refusing to reveal too much of itself, so as to elicit as many jolts from the viewer’s own imagination than from what’s on screen.

Murphy and Falchuk have been accused of dumbing down as Glee has progressed, some critics bemoaning the loss of the savagery and satire of the first season for a more homogenised and user-friendly high school soap, closer to the banality of Saved By The Bell or Beverly Hills 90210 but with added show tunes. Hopefully, American Horror Story won’t go the same way, because as it stands it’s a chilling, menacing dysfunctional family drama with a succession of other-worldly twists, and a meticulously-crafted love poem to the legacy of scary movies.

American Horror Story starts on FX on 7 November at 10pm