‘American Horror Stories’ Can’t Decide What It Wants to Say and Who It Wants to Scare

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By this point, creator Ryan Murphy has enough content to fill a shared universe. So it would make sense if his latest creation, “American Horror Stories,” wanted to be firmly placed in the “Ryan Murphy-verse” — using one-off episodes to establish extras space where preexisting characters and themes from old seasons of “American Horror Story” could stretch out. But having watched the series for three consecutive weeks now (it’s released weekly on FX on Hulu and, per typical “AHS” policy, no advance screeners are provided to critics), that’s not exactly what the FX on Hulu show is aiming for, and I’m no closer to telling you who this show is made for or what message it’s hoping to impart.

The show’s official synopsis states it’s “an anthology series of stand-alone episodes delving into horror myths, legends, and lore,” but in three episodes (four if you include the two-part pilot as separate entities) it’s unclear what legends, myths, or lore we’re drawing from outside of Murphy’s universe. None of the stories shown so far feel steeped in myths or legends that people would know offhand, or even feel particularly interested to unearth further.

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The two-part pilot, “Rubber (Wo)man” sets the tone for this confusion, returning to Murder House, the location for Season 1 of “American Horror Story.” Couple Michael and Troy (Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel, respectively) have bought the infamous house with the goal of turning it into a bed and breakfast for the horror set. (I’m assuming they didn’t watch the “Dead and Breakfast” episode “Creepshow” Season 2 released earlier this year.) Their daughter Scarlett (Sierra McCormick) finds the infamous rubber suit from Season 1 and finds herself drawn to it.

Like most things associated with Murphy, there’s certainly a solid start here. Michael and Troy hope to capitalize on Murder House’s reputation and much could be said about how a location’s tragedy can be twisted into an opportunity for profit. Unfortunately any sense of nuance is lost in Scarlett’s own burgeoning anger and attraction to sexual violence… which could also make for an insightful episode, except the entire set-up is in service to Scarlett being publicly humiliated by a group of mean girls, one led by Paris Jackson, culminating in an extended sequence of extreme ultra-violence.

“American Horror Stories” follows such a rote structure that just describing “Rubber (Wo)man” tells you everything about subsequent episodes. There’s a brief premise, extended sequences of sexuality and titillation that feel more like something out of “Red Shoe Diaries,” before the finale devolves into a gorefest. And make no mistake, the gore and violence enacted on-screen feels more like witnessing torture than anything akin to a horror movie. The camera, at times, seems to love capturing depravity as much as the characters that it becomes sickening at times. (A man having his head turned around to the point his spine pops out of his neck is particularly gruesome.)

“American Horror Stories” - Credit: Screenshot/FX
“American Horror Stories” - Credit: Screenshot/FX

Screenshot/FX

Episode 3, entitled “Drive In,” like “Rubber (Wo)man” also could have yielded something fun, even though it feels heavily derivative of the “Masters of Horror” episode “Cigarette Burns” and the Tanis podcast episode “The Last Movie.” An infamous horror film said to drive audiences crazy comes to town, leaving a group of teens trapped in a drive-in nightmare. Director Eduardo Sanchez starts out strong, and the horror happens a lot quicker than in the previous two episodes, but it doesn’t know when to end things. After the violence is unleashed, the two teen protagonists find the movie’s director (played by a hammy John Carroll Lynch) who goes off on an extended soliloquy every fanboy on Twitter should love.

So, we have one episode based on Murphy’s own series and another heavily drawing on podcast stories. What about the myths and lore? Again, the goal of the series overall remains frustratingly opaque. If it’s meant to entice those who already love Murphy’s universe there isn’t enough there. If it’s for horror buffs or anthology fans, they’ve probably seen a lot of the same stories told elsewhere.

This brings us to the latest episode, “Naughty List,” a Christmas in July-esque tale of four YouTube bros who capture a suicide on-camera and believe it will increase their subscriber base. Again, the story of a group of privileged people who believe death and trauma will help their brand has been done ad nauseum, so there’s nothing particularly unique with the premise. And the episode seems to recognize as much, considering at nearly 40 minutes long, over half of the episode is spent watching these guys act like the biggest group of jerks on the planet while simultaneously grinding on each other and others. By the time Danny Trejo’s wildman/evil Santa shows up, it’s as if the episode smashed into something else entirely.

But that’s really what “American Horror Stories” feels like: a group of writers sitting around talking about what they’ve watched and listened to and trying to make a horror story out of it. It’s not that the show is bad, per se, but it’s unclear why it even exists, except to pad the pockets of those involved. If it’s meant to scare, the gore and violence overwhelms any true feelings of terror. If it’s intended to tell interesting stories, the early entries feel like copycats of better versions.

That being said, the cast in every episode is pretty solid, made up of a mix of Murphy alumni, children of celebrities, and others who probably had nothing to do in Los Angeles during this pandemic. But too often the series refuses to trust its talent; the pilot alone has the likes of Bomer, Creel, Aaron Tveit, and Merrin Dungey yet barely gives them anything to do. Danny Trejo is only there to stare menacingly. And who wastes Adrienne Barbeau in a horror series?

Any goodwill built into the Murphy Television Universe is pretty depleted already, and “American Horror Stories” is another example of what feels like fumes being used to create a fire. The show is the entertainment equivalent of empty calories. It’s good enough to watch in the moment, but you’ll either leave feeling nothing, or with a nasty stomach ache.

Grade: D

“American Horror Stories” premieres new episodes each Thursday via FX on Hulu.

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