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Already the single weirdest (live-action) show on television, American Horror Story defied expectations by returning for a second season with an entirely new storyline that barely ties into the first. This in itself isn’t entirely unheard of, but co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also managed to bring back the bulk of their original cast to play completely different characters. Like a local playhouse, the American Horror Story franchise appears to have its own troupe of actors. However, once the initial shock of this ‘one and done’ approach has worn off, it is clear that this new show, American Horror Story: Asylum, is cut from the same cloth as the old show (re-titled American Horror Story: Murder House). Murphy, Falchuk, and their collaborators are still making a shameless and flamboyant mash-up of every pop-culture Americana, horror standby in the book. In addition, they continue drawing heavy-handed, but potent parallels to modern societal woes, specifically homosexual, abortion rights, and the stigma of mental illness – all of which were even more incendiary in the early 1960s.

My first impulse was to try to make note of as many of the show’s little references to my favourite movies (one of the most obscure ones is that the masked killer uses the same model of freezer as Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but that proved exhausting after about 30 minutes of the first episode. So, I’m going to return to my old standby of breaking the season down, episode-by-episode. As per the usual, spoilers apply.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 1: Welcome to Briarcliff


I remember thinking Murder House had excessive plot and character development in its first episode, but its steady descent into madness seems positively gentle in comparison. The first episodes of Asylum doles out exposition so quickly that it’s almost impossible to catch your breath. The episode begins in the modern day with two horny twentysomethings (Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) breaking into the condemned Briarcliff Manor Sanitarium for an illegal tour and, of course, for sex. They are rewarded with an attack from a notorious, assumed dead murderer named ‘Bloody Face.’ We then return to 1964, where we are introduced to Kit Walker (returning cast member Evan Peters) and his African-American wife, Alma (Britne Oldford). Kit and Alma are victims of an apparent alien abduction and, when Alma disappears, social outcast Kit is taken to Briarcliff under the assumption that he is Bloody Face. At Briarcliff, Kit meets a cadre of characters, including Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), the hard-assed, cruel nun that runs the asylum, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), the site’s sadistic resident physician, a nymphomaniac named Shelley (Chloë Sevigny), and an axe murderer named Grace (Lizzie Brocheré). Meanwhile, a plucky journalist named Lana Winters (returning cast member Sarah Paulson) attempts to infiltrate the asylum in hopes of talking to Kit, but finds herself trapped when Sister Jude figures out her plan and has her committed as a homosexual. Asylum’s ‘Americana stew’ is quickly flavoured here with dashes of alien abduction myths, slasher killer conventions (the whole Bloody Face thing), and a catchall mad doctor, along with a heavy dose of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (which follows a plucky newsman that has himself admitted to a sanitarium to break a big story).

Episode 2: Tricks and Treats


Lana’s lover, Wendy (Clea Duvall), regrets letting Sister Jude bully her into committing Lana, but the promise of release is quelled when Bloody Face, who is very clearly not Kit, murders her. This begins a continuing theme where the protagonists’ plans are stifled by seemingly coincidental events. Like all the repeating motifs on the show, this is at first annoying, but becomes thematically appropriate as it is normalized. Tricks and Treats introduces us to Dr. Oliver Thredson (returning cast member Zachary Quinto), who appears to be the only non-psychotic staff member. He is appalled by the conditions at the hospital and directly threatens both Jude and Arden’s rule. While Lana is sentenced to shock treatment, a young man is admitted speaking in tongues. Briarcliff’s monsignor, Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), decides that the boy is possessed and enlists the help of Sister Jude, Sister Mary Eunice Eunice (Lily Rabe), and Father Malachi (John Aylward) in an exorcism. Thredson demands to be present as a licensed physician, to Jude’s chagrin. From here, writer James Wong ( Final Destination) and director Bradley Buecker do the obvious and invoke visual tropes from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, right down to the death of Father Malachi and the transference of the demon into Sister Mary Eunice.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 3: Nor'easter


In the previous episodes, Sister Jude is revealed as a recovering alcoholic who joined the order after a hit and run accident. This sounds overly simplified, but Lange’s performance and the season’s subsequent events help round Jude into an anti-villain-turned-anti-hero that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentences as Walter White and Don Draper. In Nor’easter, the recently possessed Sister Mary Eunice, using her/its ability to see sins, begins waging methodical psychological warfare against Jude. Meanwhile, a paranoid Dr. Arden begins torturing Kit, grilling him for information about an alien implant he discovered and assumes is some kind of CIA or KGB bug. The episode culminates with the patients being rounded up to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in hopes that the film will distract them from the raging storm outside (the Nor’easter of the title). Kit, Lana, Grace, and Shelley use the storm to escape, but are chased back inside by Arden and his zombie-like creatures that live outside the asylum walls (dubbed ‘Raspers’). Shelley tries to distract Arden with her feminine wiles, but makes the mistake of laughing at the size of his penis, which drives him to knock her unconscious to amputate her legs below the knee.

Episodes 4 and 5: I Am Anne Frank (Parts 1 & 2)


The show’s writers threaten to step over the line with Dr. Arden’s misogyny throughout the earliest episodes. His brutality turns from threats of rape to holding Shelley prisoner, removing her legs, and injecting her with a series of diseases. His sadistic plans are cut short when a patient claiming she is the original Anne Frank (Franka Potente) is admitted and accuses Arden of being a notorious Nazi doctor named Hans Grüper. Her story is enough to convince Jude, who already isn’t Arden’s biggest fan, to seek further information. Obviously, the Nazis are villains worthy of worldwide recognition, but the concept of the escaped Nazi doctor is an curiously American one. Anne eventually assaults Arden and discovers Shelley, but her story is rendered moot by authorities when a man (David Chisum) arrives at the asylum and verifies that ‘Anne Frank’ is really his wife, Charlotte. Her story ends when Arden is given the okay to give her a lobotomy. Meanwhile, Thredson decides that Lana’s homosexuality isn’t a mental condition and sneaks her out of Briarcliff. Unfortunately, his benevolence is merely a façade and, in one of the season’s most shocking/amusing sequences, Lana slowly realizes that he’s the real Bloody Face. Oops.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 6: The Origins of Monstrosity


The Origins of Monstrosity sits at the center of the season and is the moment events begin turning in favour of the antagonists. Lana is trapped and strapped to a bed in Bloody Face/Thredson’s basement, who recounts his history as a murder and skinner of women. He also reveals that he has tricked Kit into confessing to his crimes and that he recorded that confession. Jude attempts to confront Arden about Shelley, but Mary Eunice moves her diseased body before the authorities arrive. In another of the season’s bigger shocks, it is revealed that Monsignor Howard is complacent in Arden’s experiments when he finds Shelley at a local hospital and strangles her to death with his rosary. Jude obtains proof that Arden is an escaped Nazi war criminal, but cannot do anything with it, because Sister Mary Eunice Eunice murders her informant. The writers attempt to bring the evil kid trope into their pastiche by introducing a murderous little girl to the asylum, but, in this single instance, they don’t manage to integrate the character/trope into the greater fabric of the season. This version of the ‘Bad Seed’ disappears after this single episode.

Episode 7: Dark Cousin


The title Dark Cousin refers to the introduction of the Angel of Death. In the series, the Reaper is a middle-aged woman (returning cast member Frances Conroy) decked out in traditional, black funeral garb. She assists those that ‘summon’ her, culminating in a kiss of death. Her appearance threatens Mary Eunice, but, following a small confrontation, the two go their separate ways. Meanwhile, Kit escapes from federal custody and Lana escapes from Thredson’s dungeon and both end up back at the asylum. Kit tries to rescue Grace, but is followed through the secret tunnels by one of Arden’s Raspers and, in the ensuing chaos, Grace is killed. Lana tries to out Thredson to Mary Eunice and is readmitted for her troubles. Dark Cousin is full of set-up and the writers bend over backwards to shuffle all of the characters back into place. It’s not one of the better episodes of the season, but it is full necessary information.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 8: Unholy Night


For their Christmas special, the producers call upon the strangely prevalent killer Santa Clause trope (ala Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, Tales From the Crypt) and introduce Leigh Emerson (the incomparable Ian McShane), a disturbed man who (in 1962) snaps, kills a Salvation Army bell-ringer, steals his Santa suit, and starts breaking into homes to torture and murder the families inside. While in Briarcliff, he chews an orderly’s face off in front of news cameras and is thrown into solitary, where he sits for an entire year, until Mary Eunice decides to exploit him. With Jude currently ejected from the premises, Mary Eunice lines up an elaborate plan to lure her back inside, where Emerson can murder her. But Jude turns the tables, stabbing Emerson in the neck with a letter opener. Meanwhile, Lana discovers Kit in the asylum’s medical ward and they hatch their own plan to capture Thredson and get him to admit, on tape, that he is Bloody Face. Unholy Night manages to continue the important threads of the season while also acting as a semi-standalone Christmas special.

Episode 9: The Coat Hanger


The title The Coat Hanger is about as inflammatory a title as the show’s creators could drum up without breaking FX’s standards & practices and it delivers on the promise of disturbing, abortion-related imagery. Mary Eunice informs Lana that she is pregnant. Realizing that Thredson is the only possible candidate for the father, Lana uses the unborn child’s life as a bargaining chip to get him to admit to the Bloody Face murders. Then she fashions a shiv from a wire hanger to kill Thredson only to find that Mary Eunice has freed him from his restraints and brought him into the fold with her and Dr. Arden. A distraught Lana informs Mary Eunice that she’s already terminated the baby (complete with surprisingly graphic flashback), but is assured that Bloody Face Jr. is still alive and kicking. In the flash-forwards, we are introduced to the adult version of the botched abortion, Johnny Morgan (returning cast member Dylan McDermott), a thread that continues throughout the final four episodes of the season without ever being particularly interesting, at least not compared to the less Soap Operatic melodramas. Meanwhile, back in the ‘60s, Emerson survives his stabbing and the entire event has been turned on Jude, who is now stripped of her clerical standing and committed to Briarcliff, where she is left to rot. This particularly busy episode ends with Arden using Kit to bait the aliens back to Earth. He is surprised when they return an incredibly pregnant Grace, instead.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 10: The Name Game


So, now Asylum is mixing their alien abduction story with RoseMary Eunice’s Baby, but that’s only the beginning of The Name Game, which might be the single best episode of American Horror Story yet. Arden discovers that the aliens haven’t only brought Grace back to life and impregnated her with Kit’s child (with Kit’s help, naturally), they’ve endowed the asylum’s sweet-natured pin-head with super intelligence and made her Grace’s ‘guardian.’ Next, Mary Eunice rapes the Monsignor, who finally finds the courage to stop her. After he throws her from the top of the stairs (in a sort of dual homage to The Exorcist and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III), the Angel of Death returns and accepts both Mary Eunice and her demon’s kiss. The episode ends with an emotionally broken Arden, crawling on the slab with Mary Eunice’s body as it slides into the cremation furnace (an appropriately ironic fate for a Nazi war criminal). But that eerily touching image isn’t even the best thing about the episode. Earlier, Lana approaches an ECT-frazzled Jude, who clutches the common room’s jukebox. In an attempt to jog her memory, Lana asks if Jude remembers her name ‘Lana, Lana Banana,’ prompting her shock-scrambled brain to hallucinate an impromptu musical sequence. This has provoked accusations of Murphy and Falchuk of filtering their Glee in their American Horror Story, but the sequence is sublime enough to transcend the obvious comparison.

Episode 11: Spilt Milk


With the best episode out of the way, Asylum begins its steady descent to the final episode. Spilt Milk brings Lana and Thredson’s story to a head. In a rare moment of clarity, Jude admits to Mother Superior Claudia (Barbara Tarbuck) that she had Lana committed illegally and begs her to sneak the reporter out of Briarcliff. Meanwhile, Thredson and Monsignor Howard take Kit and Grace’s alien baby away for placement in a ‘safer environment.’ Thredson claims he can get the kid back if Kit can secure his confession tapes, but Kit uses the conversation as a means to keep Thredson distracted while Mother Superior sneaks Lana out of the building (director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon uses the scene’s two POV’s to pay homage to Brian De Palma’s patented split-screen). Thredson arrives home to find Lana waiting in the dark with a gun drawn and, following a little banter, she shoots him dead. American Horror Story is so ingrained in genre references that the most ridiculously clichéd and unbelievable sequences somehow make sense. Lana confronting Thredson alone – before the police arrive – makes sense, because confronting the lunatic killer alone is exactly what the plucky heroine would do. With her enemy extinguished, Lana heads to a clinic to have baby Bloody Face aborted (again), but decides there’s enough death in the world already.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Episode 12: Continuum


If Murder House and, now, Asylum are any indication, it appears that abrupt shifts at the end of their character’s narratives are going to be another American Horror Story standard. After revealing that Kit’s wife Alma isn’t dead and that she has an alien baby of her own, Continuum propels the ‘60s sequences more than two years ahead in time without any warning. The supernatural elements (aside from characters mentioning the aliens) are also suspiciously suspended for the remainder of the season. Now, in the year 1967, Kit, Grace, and Alma live in a single household with their children. The first part of the episode is a semi-standalone look at the trials of a polygamous household, but everything is shattered when, in another Tales From the Crypt-esque twist, the supposedly sane Alma kills Grace with an axe. Later, Kit returns to Briarcliff to visit Alma and we see that Jude, under the name ‘Betty Drake,’ has fallen into complete mental disarray. The most disconcerting development isn’t polygamy, lovers killing lovers, or the reveal that our anti-hero is completely lost in insanity – it’s that Lana has become a coarse fame junkie who has built an empire on a book about her experiences with Bloody Face. In the episode’s most striking scene, Lana reads before a group of fans and imagines that Wendy and Thredson are calling her out on her exaggerations and omitted facts.

Episode 13: Madness Ends


It appears that a sudden, expectation-defying finale will also be an American Horror Story standard. At first, Madness Ends looks like it’s going to be an awkward wrap-up of Lana’s rise to prominence. The scary side of the episode is covered with Lana’s found-footage-style documentary expose on Briarcliff, but the heart of the episode revolves around a discussion she has with Kit, where he reveals that he saved Jude from the asylum during the ‘70s. He recounts a sappy, feel-good tale of redemption that should’ve shamed even the creators of Glee…except it’s actually genuinely moving, or rather, shockingly moving and beautifully shot. Returning director Gomez-Rejon avoids most of the show’s most common visual tropes – he shoots longer takes, utilizes smoother scene transitions, and his camerawork glides more often than it shakes. The wrap-up on the present day Bloodyface thing doesn’t quite work (it’s just not very provocative compared to all the other wacky things that happen in the season), but it does offer enough closure to put a definitive cap on Asylum and make room for the next American Horror Story.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Video


American Horror Story: Asylum is presented in full 1080p and framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The series’ directors take a patchwork approach to the imagery that embraces every in-camera trick in the book (along with a fair share of digital augmentations disguised to look like chemical and lens effects), including gels, weird focus, and distorted lens types. Yet, the entire season somehow has an eerie consistency to its image quality. I suppose there’s a certain consistency in chaos. The base look is thoroughly 35mm, dark, handheld, and de-saturated. The colours are understated, but very tightly cut against each other and only bloom when the lighting and focus requires softer edges. The images are not excessively grainy, but do embrace the textural grit of the film-based format, which, coupled with the darkness, can detract a bit from the overall detail. Most of the flashbacks and flash-forwards (along with some of the more hallucinatory sequences) are heavily stylized and often shot using different formats. The modern-day, newlywed sequences (and some of the flashbacks) are much more saturated and high contrast. These shots are vivid and flecked in black grain that obscures most of the finer details. ‘Anne Frank’s’ psychotic breakdown is told via VHS-quality flashbacks, Sister Jude’s flashbacks intermix soft-focus colour with black & white close-ups and Sister Mary Eunice’s flashbacks are presented in saturated 16mm, including the flash of white on the edges of the that would appear if the 1.33:1 frame were mis-projected at 1.78:1. The last format shifts I noticed was during the last episode – a ‘70s-set news piece is shot using blown-out, super-de-saturated 16mm (maybe 8mm?) and a 2013-set interview uses smoothed-over, hyper-crisp digital cameras.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with a very aggressive and thoroughly frightening DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. There’s a lot of dialogue on this particularly talky series, but it’s unusual for the dialogue-heavy sequences to not feature some kind of spooky resonance humming throughout the channels and beneath the words. In an effort to throw the audience into disarray, the show’s aural environment is continuously assaultive. Many of the more surrealistic sound effects are based on machinery sounds, like the bursting of a flash bulb (very Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the winding of film stock, indeterminate grinding noises, et cetera, and these bounce above the incidental effects/dialogue as if they were musical additions. Speaking of music, once again, American Horror Story reuses melodies from established American horror movies, including samples from Pino Donaggio’s Carrie score and Philip Glass’ Candyman score and blends them with James S. Levine’s original music to create one big, warm swath of sound. Asylum also utilizes some of the various eras’ pop mainstays. The effect is usually eerie, due to the context, but the aural presentation is nice and wide.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Extras


The extras begin on disc two with a small collection of deleted scenes (2:50, HD), but the bulk of the extras appear on disc three. These include:
  • More deleted scenes (4:00, HD)
  • The Orderly (9:00, HD) – A sort of first-person tour of Briarcliff that gives the basic back-stories of each of the asylum’s main patients. It includes a lot of filler footage from the season.
  • What is American Horror Story: Asylum? (22:00, HD) – A very basic EPK-style featurette that preps audiences for the upcoming season. It includes cast/crew interview and some brief footage from behind-the-scenes.
  • Welcome to Briarcliff Manor (15:00, HD) – An exploration of the season’s sets and art/production/costume design, from design to execution.
  • The Creatures (14:50, HD) – A look at the season’s various make-up effects designs and processes.


Interview subjects throughout the featurettes include producer/co-creators Brad Falchuk, director of photography Micael Goi, directors Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Michael Uppendale, and Bradley Buecker, production designer Mark Worthington, set decorator Ellen Brill, costume designer Lou Eyrich, make-up effects producers Chris Tinsley, Eryn Kruger Mekash, and Mike Mekash, and actors Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, Sara Paulson, James Cromwell, Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, Joseph Fiennes, Lizzie Brocheré, Britne Oldford, Dylan McDermott, and Adam Levine.

 American Horror Story: Asylum

Overall


American Horror Story: Asylum skirts the line of good taste and good sense, but does it with even more style and tongue-wagging craziness than even American Horror Story: Murder House. I am officially on board with this series and highly recommend it to all discerning horror aficionados. Even when it’s bad it’s wildly entertaining and the third season, Coven, is off to an even stronger start. This Blu-ray collection features strong, eclectic video presentations and aggressive DTS-HD MA soundtrack, but not much for extras, unfortunately.

 American Horror Story: Asylum
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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