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Television Gets Scary: Reviews of “American Horror Story” and “Supernatural”

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“American Horror Story” vs. “Supernatural”: Who’s Scarier?

Best Scary TV Shows: “American Horror Story” vs. “Supernatural”

Dylan McDermott in American Horror StoryI’ve never been a huge fan of horror movies. I was one of those kids who was scared by the “Thriller” music video instead of amused by its campiness, and while other kids in middle school were excitedly talking about their terrified viewing of The Ring or Jeepers Creepers, I was watching movie adaptations of musicals.

So I find it very amusing that now I love watching “scary” television shows and thrillers; as long as they aren’t too depraved or graphic. I tend to lean more toward the “haunted house” kind, in which the characters encounter CGI-produced ghosts, or supernatural thriller types of movies and television shows. Both the Ryan-Murphy-created show “American Horror Story” and the CW’s hit show “Supernatural” fit the bill. With Halloween right around the corner, it’s the ideal time to discover these shows–just remember to keep the lights on!

”American Horror Story” is, predictably, about a Haunted House. Or more like “possessed”–it’s a house held captive by the bad memories within, and imposing its will on those who dare to enter. This is certainly not a new premise; the allusion that the house is “evil” was similarly evoked in the movie House on Haunted Hill or Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” also adapted into a movie.

The season pilot starts with two horrid little boys who enter the house intent on wreaking havoc. “You’re going to regret it” says Adelaide, a little girl with Down Syndrome, who we later find out lives next door. Ignoring her, the boys smash several fixtures before discovering the basement. The basement, somewhat typically, is a cross between scary laboratory and operating room, with baby heads, among other things, stored in jars around the room. Mystified by the scene (although I would be running for the neighboring town by now), the twins stick around until, first one, then the other, is killed by an unseen force. You’ll regret it indeed, comes to mind. With the creepy singsong music in the background, we draw two conclusions–one, that this house (or something in it) is an evil force, and two, the twins clearly never watched a horror movie before (when someone tells you not to go into the creepy abandoned house, don’t go in!)

The next scene shows a woman named Vivien Harmon (“Friday Night Lights”’ Connie Britton) visiting the doctor. Vivien suffered a miscarriage 6 months prior, which led her husband, psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) to have an affair with his 21-year-old student. Now they’re trying to “start over” by moving to LA with their teenage daughter, Violet (who’s typically moody and angst-ridden, as befits a girl about to move into a seriously homicidal house). The 1920s style Victorian house  has been lovingly restored by a gay couple, who were also victims of a murder-suicide in the house. But this little tidbit isn’t what the real estate agent discloses, instead she says something to the effect of “I sold the house to them, they seemed like such a nice couple, shows you never know.” Makes you wonder about the house’s influence on people, doesn’t it? She also mentions that “THE doctor to the stars” built the house in the 20s. Perhaps the doctor was conducting sinister experiments on the side? More things to ponder as the show moves forward.

American Horror StoryStuff happens in between the intro scenes, not necessarily in a chronological fashion. Tate (a teenage patient of Ben’s) tries to befriend Violet, and when Ben notices its becoming romantic, he tries to ban Tate from the house; a sexy maid tries to seduce Ben; Vivien meets Constance, Adelaide’s mother and the weird lady next door (played by Jessica Lange); Vivien may have unknowingly slept with a ghost/demon being (one wearing a leather jumpsuit no less); and one of Violet’s enemies at school is attacked by a creature in the basement. Ben also meets a guy named Larry Harvey, who burned his wife and two daughters alive when he set his house (the same housen that the Harmon’s now live in) on fire while they slept. Comforting, right? Larry was spying on Ben, and explained more or less, that the house told him to murder his family. Sounds a bit Amityville Horror; in fact, I’ve noticed that much of the content in AHS is recycled, repurposed and thrown randomly into the story at points where we need a good “scare.”

The second episode, while a bit more coherent than the first, was also more disappointing. We start with a flashback, shuttled back to the 1960s, where the girls living in the house are headed to a Doors concert’ the two “square” students, however, are left at home. As “Laugh In” blares from the television, a bleeding man appears at the door, claiming to be wounded; the two girls let him in. When they discover his wounds are nonexistent, the man brutally murders both girls.

Flash forward to the Harmon’s, whose domestic dramas are still playing out. Ben refers Tate to someone else after he explicitly tells him that he’s interested in Violet; Ben receives a phone call from his former 21-year-old mistress–she’s now pregnant and wants him to be with her in Boston while she gets an abortion; Ben lies to the family and goes to comfort her. The real action comes in the form of a home invasion in which zealous followers of famous murders try to re-create the 1960s murder in the house, with Violet and Vivien as the victims. Clearly they home invasion and murder is not really their forté, since both women quickly outsmart them. Of course, Tate (who is obviously a ghost) kills one of the invaders, and the others are finished off by the ghost of one of the murder victims in the basement. The three creepiest characters – Tate, Constance, and Moira (the maid) gather and clean up the mess.

Normally I, like most of America, would love a series about a haunted (or possessed) house. But I had a few problems with AHS that had nothing (well, not much) to do with the story. The characters were not very realistic, and did not behave, as one blogger pointed out “as any normal human being would behave.” For example, in the first episode the bully Violet encounters in school is lured to the house by Violet under the premise of getting drugs; the girl is slashed by a demon-like creature (which might have been what Tate turned into) and runs out screaming. In the second episode, they’re the best of friends. How did that happen? And in the second “Home Invasion” episode, both Vivien and Violet seem remarkably unperturbed by the fact that they’re going to be sacrificed by three weirdos whose goal is to re-enact the ‘60s murder.

Despite these questions, the acting is still great. Violet (Taissa Farmiga) is convincing as a smart-aleck depressed teen, and Dylan McDermott is convincing as a man trying desperately to regain the trust of his family while coping with his fears (namely, of cheating again with the maid). Connie Britton, who’s been regarded as an excellent actress on “Friday Night Lights,” is OK in this role, but not great–in most of the scenes she acts stiff and almost as if she’s in a trance; I understand that the role probably calls for her to act somewhat edgy and fragile, but it seems almost like overkill in some scenes. Probably the scene-stealers are Tate (Evan Peters) and Constance (Jessica Lange) who are eerie yet not campy.

My biggest gripe has to do with how this show is trying to convince the audience how EDGY and COOL and SCARY it is. Really? In my opinion, the best scary movies (The Shining comes to mind, since I just viewed it a few weeks ago) are scary because they aren’t trying so hard. In AHS, almost all the “scary” events have been stolen from memorable scary films (The Shining, The Sixth Sense, just to name a few). Nothing is new or fresh, just recycled in the hope that their reappearance will be just as terrifying as in the original films they were stolen from. The frequently shifting camera angles are more irritating than suspenseful, and what’s with all the sex and nudity? I’m not a prude, but a good story doesn’t need to resort to such cheap tactics to grab viewer’s attention. AHS thus far is more a caricature of traditional horror movies and television than an innovative concept; the characters are a bit too borrowed from The Shining (Like Jack Torrance, Ben is trying to win back his family’s trust after a mistake; Vivien is trying to forgive him but still doesn’t trust him completely, much like Wendy; and Violet, like Danny, is troubled). As another reviewer pointed out, there’s a fine line between homage and mimicry. Sorry Ryan Murphy; I love “Glee” despite the fact that the storyline is becoming muddled, and I think you have creative ideas. I just think that this one either needs more time to develop or more substance.

Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles in SupernaturalThe one show regarding the paranormal that I can’t complain about is “Supernatural.” At first, I was skeptical of this show; just the fact that it is on the CW (which is widely regarded as a “teen soap opera” channel) made me doubtful. Yet when I saw my first episode in re-runs on TNT, I was immediately hooked. The series creator, Eric Kripke, initially pitched the show on the fly when in a meeting with studio execs when they disliked his first idea and asked for another one. The concept of “two brothers on a road trip across America” morphed into the story of Dean and Sam Winchester, two brothers whose father hunts supernatural creatures after their mother died at the hands of a demon. When dad John goes missing, Dean, who had been “hunting” with him, convinces younger brother Sam to accompany him on the search. They travel from town to town, investigating unexplained or unusual deaths and accidents and eventually exterminating the creature responsible. Think “The X Files,” except with wittier dialogue, younger main characters, and no government conspiracy subplot.

What I appreciate the most about “Supernatural,” though, is that they manage to take truly “out-there” subject matter and transform it into a plausible, non-campy storyline. The show’s scenarios are believable, despite the fact that the show centers on such classic unreal monsters as vampires, werewolves, and (this is debatable), ghosts. However, the show does acknowledge the tendency of some horror shows and films to dissolve into the preposterous; there are several episodes that are intended to be homages or spoofs. The characters are also complex and believable; stars Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles both have good chemistry with each other, and the supporting cast is also excellent. Perhaps the biggest testament to the show’s success lies in the fact that it was originally only intended by Kripke to run for 3 seasons; then it expanded into 5, which he then considered the last season, until finally it is back by popular demand and into its seventh season. Apparently people appreciate the “Supernatural” as much as I do.

Christie Sausa is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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