Review: American Horror Story: Murder House

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

If you are like me and you didn’t watch season one of American Horror Story – and are wondering if it is worth plopping in front of Netflix for it – the answer is: Yes, with reservations. This is a flawed show, but has enough potential to deserve a viewing.

The concept is pretty good. Instead of being an ongoing show, each season tells a different story with a different cast of characters, all with some kind of supernatural/horror theme. It’s similar to what telenovelas have been doing for decades and something I wish we got more often.

The problem with American Horror Story is that despite a great advantage – when you already know what the ending of the season is going to be from the beginning – it lacks narrative cohesion. The writers seem intent on using every horror cliche – the son chained in the attic, creepy children, home invasion, murder in the bathroom – just to show us that it exists. Shit happens because, hey, we must have one death scene and one sexy scene every single episode. It makes for a jumbled mess. If you thought the hotel from The Shining was crowded, wait ’til you see how many ghosts are crammed in here.

Restraint is not the strong suit of American Horror Story. Somebody needed to hit the writers and the director on the head with a copy of The Haunting of Hill House, and explain the whole concept of Gothic, of menace, of the haunted house story. The script, sloppy and giddy like the work of a young child, turns what should be a really interesting haunted house tale into a cheap freak show.

What, then, is left? For one, very good performances from most of the cast. There are some exceptions, including Zachary Quinto, who seems rather dull in this, despite his dark good looks, but the main performers do well. Jessica Lange, in particular, steals everyone’s lunch and turns what is a poorly written role and a terribly unsympathetic character into a masterpiece. She is fabulous and you can tell she is enjoying it.

The show also features a sumptous look, divine lighting, and a stylish, sleek air. The numerous murders are done well and there are some cute little horror cues – we get to hear music from Psycho and Bram Stoker’s Dracula playing during certain scenes – are cute, although sometimes overplayed. Also, it features a beautiful house, although that never becomes a character (as it should).

I love movies and books about “the Bad Place.” Unfortunately, due to the numerous antics on the show, this place never develops a true sense of menace. And the ghosts are just too damn human, and often stupid, to really scare anyone much.

Nevertheless, this is novel enough and eye-catching enough to deserve a look. Scary? It’s not. Should you watch it ’til the end? The pilot and the second episode should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re in for, but even if you stick around for the whole run of it, it’s about a dozen episodes, which is much less of a time commitment than other shows. And, when it comes to horror shows with a budget, it’s several notches above The Walking Dead.

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaReview: American Horror Story: Murder House