Even though American Horror Story Season 1 ended on an extremely "meh" note last year, I was very eager to have a chance to watch Asylum from the beginning this season. The first season may have failed at times in terms of its execution, but the idea of a regular horror series is still so startlingly original that it clearly has a lot of room to grow. So how does the new season hold up?
First off, no more ghosts? You sort of get the impression that we'd be treading that overly done territory in the first segment of the show where two young honeymooners touring the most haunted places in America stop to screw in the abandoned Briarcliff Asylum. Though the action there is completely predictable to anyone who has ever seen a horror movie trailer, it was still amazingly well done, and misleads a viewer away from what's really the focus.
We cut to 1964 where Sister Jude (Jessica Lange returning from season 1 in a new role like many cast members) is a brutally medieval nun in charge of the mentally ill at the asylum. Lange is at her absolute best, as always, and Sister Jude may be the role she was born to play. Violent and manipulative, she is internally torn apart by temptation of the flesh. We get at least once scene of her disrobing to a devil red nighty under her frock and imagining consorting with the asylum's monsignor. In addition to showing that Lange will literally be sexy until she dies and probably for at least a little while after that, it articulates the best and worst of compulsion, already a central theme in the season.
Our hero is Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) a reporter who gains entry on the premise of doing a light story on the asylum's bakery, but who is really there to uncover the truth behind a killer nicknamed Bloody Face who supposedly skins his victims alive. Her efforts to circumvent Sister Jude end up getting her incarcerated herself after she is attacked by a mysterious, bestial figure while trespassing. Ultimately, she is committed by her partner Wendy (Clea Duvall... Bless her heart, I have never seen her play any role but tragically placed lesbian) under threat of exposure that would end her teaching career.
All that aside... aliens.
Evan Peters, who I continuously wanted to punch in the face in every single scene last season, comes out with absolutely amazing strength and depth in Asylum as Kit Walker. He is a mechanic and loving husband to a black girl at a time when a fair amount of meatheaded America considered that not all that different from being caught porking a farm animal. Their relationship is touchingly perfect, the absolute picture of modern domestic bliss when it all goes to hell in a flash of light and weirdly inverted gravity. By the time Walker wakes up, he is being accused of killing his wife and is blamed for the rest of the serial murders by Bloody Face.
At the asylum, Peters is understandably confused and terrified, but what comes next leads me to believe that Asylum is going to go places that TV shows have not gone before.
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Enter James Cromwell as Dr. Arthur Arden, the only actor in the series so far who can stand next to Jessica Lange and match her every move. Arden is a mysterious figure. Thus far, four patients have died of unexplained causes under his watch, which he shrugs off to Jude's questioning as natural. This is anything but natural though. It's very apparent that Arden is interested in mutation, and has some sort of connection to the fragmented memories Walker has of strange, demonic figures exploring him medically during his black out.
Arden later kidnaps Walker and straps him down to an operating table. I'm not sure if director Bradley Buecker was actively striving for the Josef Mengele vibe, but it arrived in spades with an ace to trump. Both he and his "patient" are stopped dead in their tracks though by the strange microchip that Arden extracts sans anesthesia from Walker's neck... a microchip that grows legs and suddenly runs away.
Thus far an audience couldn't be happier with Asylum. The decision to end the Harmon family storyline was the correct one. It had already overstayed its welcome by season end. By embracing both extraterrestrial and body horror in Asylum, it's clear that a more modern and terrifying approach is imminent. If you're looking for the edge that so many horror movies lack these days, you'll find it on Asylum.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs Wednesdays at 10/9 central on FX.