Created by: Brad Falchuck
Starring: Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson
The first season of American Horror Story (later given the title American Horror Story Asylum) was one of the best shows on television as it aired and remains in the top five easily. The concept of the show over the long haul may be difficult for some fans to swallow though. The creators have taken the idea of an anthology to a whole new level. Classic anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ray Bradbury Presents, and of course Tales from the Crypt all offered a new story with a whole new cast in each episode, sometimes multiple stories with different cast in each episode. These stories were all radically different and only felt connected by the title of the series. There were often show regulars such as William Shatner but they never appeared in back to back stories/episodes. American Horror story chooses to tell a completely different story each season. What could be jolting though is to see the same main cast in each season playing completely different characters. Sure Asylum isn’t technically connected to season one at all but seeing Jessica Lange on the show in a completely different role can be a bit unsettling. Generally it’s worth the adjustment though.
This season of American Horror Story leaves the murder house and all of its secrets and ghosts and ghouls behind. It’s sort of a shame really. That house was so buried in evil that you could tell many stories in it and they could all be different. With that said there would still be a palpable amount of formula that would quickly overtake the series so maybe the creators made the right decision when they cut all ties to season one. This season is mostly set in the 1960’s and follows the patients and doctors at a mental asylum. The story unfolds with a man convicted of being a serial killer and sent to the asylum for treatment. A reporter determined to uncover the atrocities happening to patients at the asylum ends up also institutionalized in the asylum. Now she must fight all sorts of evil; the good, the bad, and the really ugly, just to stay alive.
The plot as described above sounds very straight forward but this season of this series is anything but straight forward. The writers decided to literally throw ever trope of the horror genre at the viewer in rapid succession throughout the series, especially in the early episodes. There are serial killers, evil possession, and well yeah there are son sci-fi elements too. It’s when the show hits these science fiction elements that it starts to spin a little out of control. So many different genres and subgenres hit you all at once that it can be dizzying. Eventually the writers do bring everything together and make about as much sense out of it all as can be done working within this genre with this many story elements. The first several episodes of the season tend to jump around hard and fast kind of making everything feel more like a mosaic of characters rather than a story to invest in. For this reason the episodes aren’t as addictive as they were in season one.
With that said the performances, Jessica Lange’s in particular, are outstanding and the style and presentation of the series are as cinematic as many Hollywood films. There are many genre influences used to a great degree throughout the season with the camera angles of Alfred Hitchcock being the most apparent. While these angles border on overkill similar to J J Abrams use of lens flare in the Star Trek remake they work more often than not. They are meant to throw the viewer off balance and to ramp up the unsettling vibe of the particular scene and yes generally they work.
Asylum dials up the crazy and dials back some of the darker elements that were established in season one and it doesn’t quite balance out. As dark as Asylum gets the level of crazy sort of softens the darkness to a shade of gray at times. There was this dark macabre sexuality that not only made you creeped out it sometimes made you feel like you had to take a shower after watching. That’s quite a feat for nighttime TV and this season doesn’t get there. There’s just a little too much tongue in cheek at a few points. If you power through the first several episodes of kaleidoscope-like story telling it all starts to come together by the mid-point and you can finally invest in some of the characters.
If you were a fan of season one then this is a no brainer must watch. With all of its flaws asylum still offers one of the few truly unique television experiences out there with great visuals and acting to boot. There are scary scenes and scary episodes for the horror fan too. You just have to find a way to accept the aliens, there’s no other way around it.
Video is presented in 1080p at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. American Horror Story is one of the dwindling shows still shot on 35mm film and this Blu-ray represents all that’s good and all that’s bad about shooting in that medium. Colors and clarity are solid in brighter scenes although there’s a great deal of film grain. Some of the grain is obviously intentional but in many dark scenes the noise is so intense that it makes the scene a little tough to see. Overall though this presentation looks much better than the 720p presentation that the series was broadcast in over Comcast Cable.
The top end audio option here is a DTS HD Master track and overall it sounds impressive. This isn’t just a remix into high end surround; the show actually takes nice advantage of the sound stage from the opening music all the way through the asylum itself. There are directional bangs and screams that play perfectly with the visual to create impact and creepy ambient audio hitting all of the surrounds in quieter scenes just makes the scary atmosphere all the more immersive. There are some times that higher frequency audio can sound a little muffled but those instances aren’t excessive.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The three disc set comes packaged in a slim amaray case with a cardboard slipcover. The artwork on the cover is simple but effective playing a sort of Dexter card with dark blood on white but of course Asylum takes it up a notch with the imagery of a nun too.
The first thing that must be said here is where are the commentaries? There are no cast or crew commentaries to be found on this set. Commentaries seem like a no brainer for a series that features such an extreme transformation from one season to the next.
The bonus features that are provided are mostly found on disc three of the set with the exception of three minutes of deleted scenes which are on disc two. In total there are seven minutes of deleted scenes that don’t offer any additional depth of story but we’ll take everything we can get.
The Orderly is a brief featurette offering a tour of the asylum location sandwiched between clips about the inmate’s. It’s always cool to see locations in a less cinematic more real world way after seeing a movie or TV show that the set is in. Unfortunately this is super short.
There are three featurettes on disc three starting with a standard making of doc that features interview snippets with the cast and crew talking about the new storyline, being cast in different roles than those of season one, and more. It’s a marketing video but it’s over twenty minutes long and is worth a look. The better featurettes are the last two which focus on the asylum set creation and the makeup FX used in the season. These are each only fifteen minutes long but they are a lot of fun.
Not a lot here honestly but there are a few gems.
American Horror Story Asylum seems a little too determined to take everything up a level and to throw every classic horror genre in the mix. This makes for a confusing start that takes a while to settle into. It’s worth finding your footing in though. By the end of the season the writers have made nearly everything matter and it makes a sort of weird sense. This season does still maintain the title of scariest show on TV so for the horror fan it’s a must watch.
Overall (Not an Average) 7.5