TV RECAP: ‘AMERICAN HORROR STORY’ 2.01 – “WELCOME TO BRIARCLIFF”

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So there’s this show on FX called American Horror Story. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? (FX only ran some fifteen kajillion promos for it throughout the summer up until its season premiere last night).  While last year focused on a dysfunctional family living in a haunted house, this year shifts the focus to a Massachusetts Insane Asylum in 1964. Usually in horror, you can’t go too wrong setting your piece in an asylum (Gothika excluded), and with their penchant for sex, violence and all out WTF moments, I was pretty excited for this new season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series.

I can’t say I was neither let down nor energized after this season premiere. Since it was the first episode of a brand new story, we get a lot of setup and character introductions, so a lot happened without very much happening at all.

We start off in present day when two randy newlyweds Leo and Teresa (played by Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan Tatum AKA Mrs. Channing Tatum) who are spending their honeymoon checking out (and having sex in) famous haunted spots and have made their way to Briarcliff Manor, the setting for this season. This scene actually uses about five different horror clichés (but is still fairly effective) — While they are engrossed in some (1) steamy sex on an operating table, (2) Teresa (naturally) hears a noise so they go to check it out (of course). (3) They find a door with a food hatch in the center and Leo sticks his arm in it to investigate (4). Needless to say, something bites it off (5). But by who or what will have to wait as the creepy credits begin (I have to say, AHS has probably the best opening credits sequence for a horror show, effectively creepy and disturbing with its eerie, WTF imagery and unnerving music). I’m assuming that since Leo is not necessarily a horror fan (it’s established that Teresa is the horror freak) he wouldn’t know that YOU DON’T STICK YOUR BODY PARTS INTO DARK PLACES IN A SUPPOSEDLY HAUNTED PLACE!!

Anyway, the show then picks up in 1964 with the first of several returning actors from last season, Evan Peters’ Kit Walker returning home from work and delaying dinner in order to have sex with his wife Alma. Alma and Kit have kept their marriage secret because it’s 1964 and he’s white and she’s black. Post-coitus, Kit is lying in bed while Alma finishes making dinner when the house erupts in bright, blinding light. There are shots of Kit being probed by aliens and him screaming for Alma, and when we next see Kit, he is being brought in chains into Briarcliff as its latest tenant.

 At this point we are introduced to several of the main characters, including Sarah Paulson’s (also from last season) sneaky, lesbian (remember this is 1964. Homosexuality was just as taboo as interracial relationships back then) reporter Lana Winters, who infiltrates Briarcliff in order to get the story on a serial killer known as “Bloodyface,” who preys on women, decapitates them and wears their flesh for a mask ala Leatherface. It seems Kit is accused of being Bloodyface and is thought to have killed Alma, even though he claims she was abducted by aliens. Hey, it was 1964 and the space program was just getting under way, alien abductions just weren’t as commonplace as they are today, so of course nobody believes him. Kit has been brought to Briarcliff to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Upon her investigation, Lana crosses paths with Sister Jude, the “warden” of Briarcliff.  Sister Jude is played by season one’s Jessica Lange and while the character could have been a one note, derivative bore, the combination of the writing and Lange’s acting give Sister Jude several layers in just the first episode. While she is the stern authority figure you would expect from a nun in charge, she also lusts after Joseph’s Fiennes’ Monsignor Howard, at one point fantasizing about stripping down to her skivvies in front of him (I’ve seen a few commenters on other boards tell her to leave her clothes on. Honestly, she’s aged just fine and is right up there with Helen Mirren on the “cougar” scale), showing compassion and humanity when one of the inmates dies, and just a touch of evil (to Kit, regarding Alma: “I wonder: Did her dark meat slide off the bone any easier than the other victims?” Ouch.)

Then there’s Dr. Arden (new to the show James Cromwell), Briarcliff’s newly appointed Chief physician, who likes to experiment on the inmates, and is possibly a former Nazi. Dr. Arden clashes with Sister Jude, the classic “man of science versus (wo)man of faith” that calls to mind Jack Shephard and John Locke on Lost.  Sister Jude: “I’ve dealt with far bigger monsters than you. Let me give you fair warning: I always win against the patriarchal male.” Arden: “Bully for you.”

Dr. Arden’s latest victim? Kit. As Arden messes with him, Kit flashes back to his abduction and of an E.T. probing him up the ass. (I would complain about having to see Evan Peters’ butt if we weren’t treated to a shot of Lily Rabe’s later on. Hey, tit for tat.)  Arden notices something hard (“too hard to be a tumor”) under the skin on the side of Kit’s neck. He cuts and extracts a little black microchip, which then sprouts six little legs and skittles away like a bug. All righty then.

Back to Lana. Still determined to get an interview with Bloodyface, she skulks around the hospital’s grounds at night where she comes upon Sister Mary, feeding strange beasts in the woods, on orders of Dr. Arden. Sister Mary isn’t thrilled to be discovered, but when they hear a ferocious howl, Sister Mary leads Lana inside the asylum, via a subterranean tunnel that Sister Mary is determined to keep hidden from Sister Jude, along with the secret duties she executes for the mad doctor.

Ever the opportunist, Lana agrees to keep her mouth shut, as long as Sister Mary takes her to see Kit. Sister Mary reluctantly takes the reporter to the dormitory, but she runs off after getting splattered with bodily fluids by an inmate. Lana continues to investigate the hospital, eventually ducking for cover in one of the cells to hide from a patrolling Sister Jude. Lana discovers a locked door with familiar food hatch in the center. She bends down to open the gateway and peek inside (sigh, obviously SHE’S not a horror fan either…) when a hand juts out and knocks her unconscious.

Lana wakes up sometime later strapped to a bed and locked in a cell courtesy of Sister Jude. See, the wicked agent of God has decided that in order to keep Briarcliff’s secrets safe, she would have Lana committed. And as a way to ensure said committal, Sister Jude forces Lana’s lover Wendy (Clea Duvall) to remand Lana into her care by threatening to expose her sexuality. Fearful of losing her job as a schoolteacher, Wendy signs on the dotted line. We leave Lana screaming from her cell…

Flash forward back to present day where Adam Levine is in misery (see what I did there?) having lost his arm. Teresa has wrapped a belt around his stump but he’s bleeding out. Hoping to find help, she takes off, but doesn’t get very far as she opens a door…and standing before her is Bloodyface. This was probably one of the most striking images from the show (another being a female inmate afflicted with what appears to be Virchow-Seckel syndrome or birdheaded dwarfism, similar to the pinheads in Tod Browning’s Freaks) and was certainly a good note in which to leave off.

American Horror Story: Asylum has certainly asked a lot of questions in its first episode (who is Bloodyface? What really happened toAlma? What is Dr. Arden up to? Will Lesbian Lana get it on with Chloe Sevigny’s nympho Shelley?)  Like I said before, this episode neither disappointed nor blew me away, but I am definitely curious to see what the season has in store for us…and the poor inmates of Briarcliff….

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About Author

Dave Zagorski

Dave Zagorski is a filmmaker who has yet to achieve his potential. He has written and directed two movies under his MAD Z Productions banner: “Killing Brooke” and a remake of the euro-horror exploitation movie “The Devil’s Nightmare.” He enjoys long walks on the beach, lesbians and putting his friends through hell on set. He hopes to one day win an Oscar, but until then he’ll make due with his son Oscar.

  • Mateo

    I like that Ryan Murphy has moved
    the setting from the haunted house to the haunted asylum. Either setting should
    be worthy of enough material, especially with 46,000 souls running around. I
    was excited for the season premiere, but missed it because of my new work
    schedule at DISH. I made sure to set my Hopper to record the first episode, and
    with all the DVR recording space I’m going to record the rest of the season. I
    hate to hear Adam Levine is already missing a limb after the first episode. I
    think as long as the rest of him remains in tact, fans will have something to
    look forward to.