American Horror Story made its debut October 5 and on Halloween night in Canada. The UK and other global points will get their first glimpse later this month. Although the first two episodes are clearly separate stories, I’m combining the review, because they’ve been presented together thus far, and the series deals more with arcs than stand-alone stories.

For the Harmons, the horror has just begun.

Title: “Pilot” and “Home Invasion”

Cast and Crew

Directed by Ryan Murphy, Alonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy

Connie Britton as Vivien Harmon
Dylan McDermott as Ben Harmon
Taissa Farmiga as Violet Harmon
Denis O’Hare as Larry Harvey
Jessica Lange as Constance
Frances Conroy as Moira
Alexandra Breckenridge as Moira
Jamie Brewer as Adelaide
Evan Peters as Tate Langdon

Additional cast and crew information may be found here.

Premise

A troubled family move across the country and take possession of an even more troubled house with a horrendously troubled past.

Troubles ensue.

The pilot begins in 1978, where we witness the death of two boys in the basement of the then-derelict mansion. In the present, the Harmons move into the house, only to encounter every horror-movie convention in cinematic history.

“Home Invasion” begins in 1968, when the mansion, then a boarding house, becomes the playground for a psychotic killer.

In the present, the Harmons become the target of three disturbed individual who want to re-enact the plot of The Strangers original killings. Unfortunately, the psycho-wannabes have taken on something far more sinister and powerful.

High Points

I can’t deny the brilliance of the second episode’s premise: mortal killers invade a haunted house. The show becomes a dark, absurd comedy, as the predators turn prey. The episode also takes some clever shots at the manner in which media can make celebrities out of criminals.

Low Points

…That second episode would have been a good deal better if the show hadn’t front-loaded so much over-the-top weirdness. The story-arc approach should, in theory, make for better story-telling, as characters and plot elements, novel-like, gradually develop. Alas, many recent shows of this nature, like this one, try to throw everything at us in the first couple of episodes. The clutter interferes with storytelling.

American Horror Story may be the most cluttered yet; weirdness crowds like zombies around a fallen man. In two hours, we have family trauma, high school bullies, pranks gone wrong, the walking dead, a disturbed neighbour, a Columbinesque teen boy, serial killers, monsters in the basement, a mad lab, ancient evil, unsolved mysteries, multiple murders, a mysterious stranger, and horror-movie shout-outs. Imagine reading a DC or Marvel crossover event comic without any prior knowledge of superheroes. This series at times feels like the horror/tv-drama equivalent.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The show finds fresh approaches to stale material. Even Vivien’s discovery of Ben’s affair takes a novel and creepy approach. Acknowledging that the show steals from multiple sources—- at one point, they even use the music from Psycho— does not make the theft original, but at least the creators have a sense of history.

Effects: 5/6

Story: 4/6 This could have been so much more had the writers thrown far less onto the screen.

Acting: 6/6 The show has fine actors. Dylan McDermott’s even good enough that I can overlook the camera’s obsessive highlighting of his body. The actresses playing Moira prove suitably disturbed, Jessica Lange manages her over-the-top dialogue, and Taissa Farmiga does well as daughter Vivien. Pity they did not cast someone closer to her age to play Tate.

Emotional Response: 4/6 Unevenly creepy—and not at all child-friendly. In the first episode, in particular, we have excess at the expense of suspense.

Production: 6/6

Overall: 4/6 American Horror Story may turn into something good, but it has set itself some significant difficulties, and the explanations will have to make a kind of sense.

32/42