American Horror Story: Season 1 (US - BD)
Gabe hangs out in a creepy house with a bunch of mentally maladjusted ghosts...
Following a series of unfortunate events (most of which are his own fault), psychiatrist Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) moves with his wife, Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), and teenage daughter, Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmiga) into a newly refurnished LA mansion for a ‘new start.’ Unfortunately, their new home is a notorious ‘murder house’ that is haunted by its former inhabitants. Insanity ensues.
Frankly, I can’t blame anyone for not liking or even hating American Horror Story. It’s such a specific taste that it’s almost a miracle it was ever considered for mainstream television. I assume the only reason it exists is that creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy were instrumental parts of Nip/Tuck and Glee. But I think more horror fans need to give the series a chance and am prepared to defend its oddball terrors in hopes of winning over a couple of converts. The concept of the people behind something as cheerful and mainstream friendly as Glee participating in a brutal, gory, overtly sexual, and melodramatic horror show was enough to make me give it shot. American Horror Story is an enigma of opposing themes and styles. It doles out the genre clichés and fully embraces every bloody ounce of them, but takes time to turn expectations on their head to better serve a shock or subversive giggle. The post-modern and referential qualities don’t define the show alone – they’re part of a tapestry that includes real-life, tabloid-type fears and a surprisingly rich, ‘American/Gothic’ mythology.
Comparisons to David Lynch’s seminal, weirdo horror/dark comedy/drama series Twin Peaks (which seems even more of a preposterous primetime success in 20 years of hindsight; at least American Horror Story appears on cable) are almost too apt, downplaying the marked efforts of the creators. Though, obviously, American Horror Story is certainly ‘Lynchian’ and it’s weirdness is paramount to story and performances. Even without surrealist visual hallmarks the show’s obsession with perverting typically American morals fits the director’s M.O. Acclimation is difficult, especially early in the season, where it’s impossible to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Soon enough, however, this burden is lifted and it’s clear enough that there is no fantasy – everything that happens is meant to be taken quite literally. At this point, you just kind of have to go with it.
The weirdness isn’t resigned to the imagery and logic-stretching narratives or the frothing high-energy performances and overly specified, gob-smackingly unnatural dialogue. There’s truth buried deep within the character interactions, but the idea here is to assault the audience with hyperbole. I believe most audiences can deal with a bit of Opera-acting in their horror stories, though, and assume the biggest possible turnoff for new viewers is a consistent lack of logic. The straight horror elements obviously don’t require logic, but plenty of people won’t be able to look beyond the characters’ stupid behavior, specifically the choice to not simply leave the creepy murder house. Reasons for staying are given, but really aren’t important – the lack of logical behavior is part of the conceptual approach, which appears to be something along the lines of other post-modern/meta horror. The difference being that, unlike Scream or Cabin in the Woods, American Horror Story doesn’t ever come out and explain the referential qualities to its audience (I suppose lifting direct quotes from horror classics comes also close to counting). The concept is more obviously cemented in the fact that the show encompasses just about every genre and subgenre trope within a single episode, though much of these remain overlooked by the audience members unable to parse the audio/visual collage assailing them.
The plot-wagon threatens to fly off the rails when my suspension of disbelief screams in my ear and tells me there’s no reason, even in this universe, to have a professional psychiatrist working out of a murder house. I also notice he’s distractingly terrible at his job, but this story element (which isn’t really any more bizarre than anything else on the show) allows the writers to include brief horror vignettes that wouldn’t otherwise work within the geographical confines of the series, like a show-stopping bisecting via elevator. The serial elements take precedence, but almost every episode has a standalone theme in style and subtext. Unfortunately, the serial begins to take over the standalone wackiness as the season rolls on, depleting much of the charm by over-explaining things better left to the audience’s confused imaginations. This leads to a lull in fun in the center of the season that the writers never quite recover from. Despite some stylistic changes from episode to episode the series has an odd visual immediacy, mixing stoic, old-fashioned compositions with slight camera shake and really aggressive editing techniques. This mix of classic and modern horror movie practices includes subliminal flashes, but the real unease is in the anxiety-attack-exacting, anti-rhythmic cutting.
The first episode establishes the LA suburbs as a judgmental, aggressive culture (as I assume they are). School life is all the frightening bits of Glee cranked far beyond realism. The problem is that school life ends up playing a pretty small role in the series overall and I fear that it is only included to help bring the Glee fan base into the fold. I was kind of looking forward to more high school horror. It turns out that the high school is another part of the house’s mythology and leads to one of the show’s more offensive subplots. Or so I assume. I don’t really find any of it offensive, nor do I think a show that thrives on antagonistically pressing its audience’s most tender buttons. The crazy thing is that sometimes the performances manage to transcend the hyperbole and produce something genuinely moving. The whole dramatic thing crashes a bit every time it feels like the writers are getting a little too serious, but, more often than not, horror takes the wheel again and steers the show back into silly-fun territory.
American Horror Story’s commitment to genre homage extends to its use of traditional 35mm film sources (according to online specs), which this outstanding 1080p, 1.78:1 expertly recreates. The bulk of the ‘present day’ look is very dark with high contrast black and colour edges. The blackness rarely turns soupy and the harsh contrasts produce only minor sharpening effects. The highlights feature plenty of sharp and clean textures, but the basic lighting schemes are usually relatively soft, which can cause some intended blooming, along with light banding effects in the smoother backgrounds. There’s not a lot of grain for a 35mm source, but the lack of obvious digital colour grading throughout leads me to assume there isn’t a lot of DNR employed either. Grain levels are also consistently set light. This helps to set variances between the present day and the murder house’s previous adventures. Flashbacks are important to the show’s storytelling structure and visually these are defined by different film stock types (virtually, I assume) and colour qualities. Some eras are washed out and grainy, while more recent back-story is warmer, cleaner, and more vibrant. Each style is represented here with an air of authenticity and largely no signs of unintended source artefacts. Obviously, we’re meant to notice the difference, so it’s made clear, but even at its most grainy, important detail isn’t lost and edge enhancement effects barely register.
This Blu-ray collection comes fit with an outstanding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that makes great use of the show’s ‘atmospherically spooky even when mundane stuff is happening’ sound design. This ranges from loud sweeps of sound to softer creeping noises, though ‘ambience’ isn’t really the right word considering how aggressive the mix is. Every episode features some kind of directional enhancement, including swirling abstract effects and more specific stereo and surround placed elements. The musical choices are, in my opinion, the most consistently impressive element, including direct and wonderful references to genre and period-specific music. This includes original compositions and direct lifts/samples of famous scores. For example, Bernard Herrmann’s easily recognizable Psycho themes permeate through the episode Home Invasion, bits of Wojciech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula score swell over key bits of Murder House and Halloween: Part 1, and Herrmann’s Twisted Nerve theme (also heard in Kill Bill Volume 1) appears at choice moments on various episodes. As stated, this music, along with James S. Levine’s original scoring and music-like effects work continuously slither throughout the channels and throb the LFE with a mix of subtlety and aggression. The effects are at once eerily detached from and ingrained in the relatively natural, centered dialogue, which I assume is the intended effect.
Extras begin on disc one with co-creator Ryan Murphy’s solo commentary track on the pilot episode (which he directed). This track spends a lot of time glad-handing the series’ cast and crew, but is also plenty entertaining and informative, including information on the casting, production design, and direction processes. Murphy sticks pretty closely to the on-screen action, but doesn’t miss a chance to talk about the ways the episode interlocks with the rest of the series. He’s also good enough to point to the episode’s many horror film homages specifically (I’m ashamed I didn’t see the Repulsion references[/I]).
The rest of the extras are relegated to the third and final disc of the set, starting with The Murder House: Presented by the Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood (6:40, HD), a faux tour group through the house with actor David Anthony Higgins reprising his role as Stan the tour guide. Behind the Fright: The Making of American Horror Story (24:40, HD) is an average EPK/featurette (with spoilers), including interviews with Falchuk, executive producers Alexis Martin Woodall and Michael Goi, production designers Mark Worthington and Beth Rubino, set designer Ellen Brill, FX supervisor David Altenau and Jason Piccioni, make-up department head Eryn Kruger Mekash, make-up designer Christian Tinsley, costume designer Chrisi Karvonides, and actors Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Frances Conroy, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, Denis O’Hare and Alexandra Breckenridge. Overture to Horror: Creating the Title Sequence (9:10, HD) explores the production of the show’s main titles, including interviews with designer Kyle Cooper (who did the game-changing titles to Seven and just about every awesome titles you’ve ever seen since), Woodall, and title composers Cesár Davila-Irizarry and Charlie Clouser. The disc is finished with Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts (15:10, HD), a look at the show’s ghostly cast with more cast interviews, including the usual suspects, plus Kate Mara, Bhodhi and Kai Shultz, Lilly Rabe, Matt Ross, Azura Skye, Mageina Tovah, Michael Graziadei, Ashley Richards, Jordan David, Brando Eaton, and Teddy Sears.
Having found myself mostly mystified by the popularity of Glee, I first thought I wouldn’t like American Horror Story. Then I thought the writers couldn’t possibly sustain their oddball tone through an entire 12-episode season, but despite a few lulls they did. I can’t recommend this series to everyone, though I certainly want to. If you’re one of those special people ready for some balmy melodrama and gory, sexually-charged horror you might want to give it a shot. This Blu-ray collection is definitely a good way to experience such an audio/visual overload of a series, including a rich, filmic 1080p transfer, a dynamic, lively DTS-HD MA soundtrack, plus the extras cover a lot of ground in a brief timeframe.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th September 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Creator Commentary, The Murder House: Presented by the Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood, Behind the Fright: The Making of American Horror Story, Overture to Horror: Creating the Title Sequence, Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Frances Conroy, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, Denis O’Hare, Alexandra Breckenridge
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Horror and Thriller
Length: 532 minutes
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