Review: American Horror Story (S4 Ep1) “Monsters Among Us”

AFTER a year of waiting, and weeks of taunting us with teasers, American Horror Story is back!

Taking an annual gamble, the show’s creators reinvent every season to keep storylines fresh and us on the edge of our seats. Previous incarnations have given us a haunted house, satanic nuns and witchcraft fuelled by adolescent hormones. With such a broad engagement with the horror genre, it’s no mystery as to why each fan has their favourite season. It will be interesting to see how many hearts (or should we say souls?) this new one will claim.

Not being one to shy away from the strange or macabre, Ryan Murphy, the show’s ‘head honcho’, revealed at the end of the last season that this time he would be delving into the freakiest in all things carnival. As to whether he has succeeded in once again pushing the boundaries of 21st century television and horror is yet to be decided, but the first episode is off to a promising start.

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Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars.

Set in 1952, the episode plays up to an idealistic view of the fifties, only to have the summer dresses splattered with blood, and social conformity threatened by a group circus performers considered ‘freaks’. Oh, and don’t forget the killer clown.

The episode also introduces this season’s main characters in a way that we would like to argue is flawless. They give us just enough background information and essence of character so that we are not bogged down by information, but they also leave room for mystery and plot development.

Throughout most of the episode, we follow conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, played by Sarah Paulson. Where one may doubt how to successfully transform one actress into a believable pair of Siamese twins, it is a pleasant surprise to see that, from the get-go, both the people behind the screens and Paulson in front manage to pull this unusual feat of technology and technique off to a much better degree than expected.

Accents were another thing that we were looking forward to as soon as it was revealed that Jessica Lange would be playing Elsa Mars, a German expatriate and manager of the Freak Show. This is where our opinions diverge a little as Beth argues that for an American actress considerably older than her contemporaries, her tackling of the accent, albeit not perfect in places, is not bad. She suggests that the softening of her accent and the casual slip into using Americanisms is a result of living in American for an unspecified length of time. I, on the other hand, found the accent stereotypical to the point of it seeming ‘put on’, and can’t help but wonder if it is all part of the character’s act?

We both agree that Kathy Bates’s accent was bloomin’ awful – what was it even supposed to be? It kept switching from being standard American, to Irish, to something reminiscent of Ben Stiller’s Zoolander.

Accents aside, Lange’s character this season looks to be as interesting as her previous ones. We only need to look back on Constance, Jude or Fiona to see that Lange avoids taking on one-dimensional roles. And yet, we were still surprised (SPOILER ALERT!) at the reveal of her double amputation in the episode’s conclusion. It was a striking image that required no dialogue from Lange’s character to move us. We can only hope that over the next few episodes we will learn the history behind her amputations.

From the tone set by the first episode, it is likely that American Horror Story: Freak Show will tell the story of the abnormal trying to co-exist with the rest of society. But we are hoping that the show will put its own spin on a scenario that has been used repeatedly in the horror genre.