I’ll be honest. When I settled in for the first episode the FX series, American Horror Story, I wasn’t expecting much, especially considering that the show’s co-creator, Ryan Murphy, was the same guy responsible for unleashing Glee upon the world. I half-expected a series in which ghosts would break out into bad renditions of Madonna songs whilst lobbing Slushees at thirty year actors posing as gawky teenagers. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as American Horror Story proved to be a delightfully dark and decadent feast of sex, scares, and scandal, with a supernatural soap storyline as intriguing and addictive as the heyday of Dark Shadows. As of this writing, the launch of the second season of American Horror Story is imminent, and, while this new season starts fresh, with a new locale (a creepy asylum), new characters (played by many of the same actors from the first season), and new secrets, it’s as good a time as any for fans to relive the excellent first season and for newcomers to see how it all began.
After a tumultuous year of infidelity and loss, the Harmon family – Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and Violet (Taissa Farmiga) – move from Boston to Los Angeles in hopes of leaving their demons behind. The family gets a fantastic deal on a gloriously restored mansion with a rather sordid history. It seems that the previous tenants – a gay couple who poured their time, money, and energy into beautifying the home – died as a result of a murder/suicide, thus explaining the bargain price, but Ben has a good feeling about the place, and convinces his reluctant wife that this would make a great place not only for him to start his new psychiatric practice, but for them to make their new start.
Upon moving in, they discover that the house comes with an unexpected bonus; a disfigured cleaning woman named Moira (Frances Conroy), who knows the house like the back of her hand, and, persuades Vivien to keep her on. Ben, who is still in the dog house for sleeping with one of his students back in Boston, is very surprised by Vivien’s decision, as the Moira he sees is not the older, unattractive woman that Vivien sees but is instead a young, sexy temptress (Alexandra Breckinridge). Ben takes this as a vote of confidence in his commitment to their relationship, but, as soon as he’s alone with Moira, she attempts to seduce him, and young Violet witnesses the act, deepening her both her disgust (Violet, too, sees the older, much less attractive version of Moira) and distrust for her father.
Rather than tell her mother that Ben is up to his old tricks, the depressed teenager retreats even further from her family, but soon finds solace in Tate (Evan Peters); a grungy looking teenager and new patient of Ben’s. Vivien, meanwhile, is forcibly introduced to their nosy neighbor, Constance (Jessica Lange, absolutely owning the role of a walking cautionary tale for pretty women who think it’s easy to make their mark in Hollywood), when Constance’s mentally challenged daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) invites herself into the Harmon’s kitchen. Constance immediately senses Vivien’s distrust of Ben, especially in the presence of Moira, with whom, we soon learn, Constance has a very interesting history.
It isn’t long before the past residents of the house begin to have their way with its new inhabitants, with Ben becoming more obsessive, Vivien more protective (and – still reeling from the loss of her stillborn child – more maternal), and Violet growing even more detached and death obsessed as her relationship with the troubled Tate blossoms. Soon the family begins getting vists from a motley crew of eccentrics, both living and dead, as their new home looks to make their stay a permanent one.
American Horror Story is an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining series that, spread over the course of 12 episodes, offers everything from nightmarish visuals and genuine scares to gut-busting laughs and a healthy dose of arousing sexual content (thanks, mostly, to the white-hot Breckinridge and, later in the series’ run, Kate Mara, who plays Ben’s former fling, Hayden). The cast is uniformly excellent, with Conroy, True Blood’s Dennis O’Hare (who plays Constance’s gruesomely scarred lapdog/former lover Larry Harvey), and Evan Peters turning in excellent performances. It’s the aforementioned Lange, however, who steals the show as the conniving Constance, giving what is arguably one of the best performances of her career, here, which is saying a lot considering her impressive body of work.
Murphy and his Nip/Tuck creative partner, Brad Fulchuk, share a love for the genre that obviously runs deep, with the two crafting a series that pays homage to everything from Rosemary’s Baby to The Shining, uses a clever mix of era-appropriate music and recycled genre scores (most notably, Bernard Hermann’s Twisted Nerve), and is infused with the same hip sensibilities and envelope-pushing content they employed during their run on Nip/Tuck (one of the early crop of “basic cable” shows that truly gave the premium channels a run for their money in terms of racy content).
American Horror Story: The Complete First Season comes to Blu-ray is in its native 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and, of course, is presented in full 1080p, which, when compared to the compressed over the air signal most of us are used to, looks a damned sight better. As a cable subscriber, I’ve pretty much learned to accept compression artifacts, blocky blacks, and overly hot blues as an unfortunate side effect of the means by which the data is delivered to my television set (yes, I know; you “dish” and FIOS people don’t have that problem). Here, the image is presented as it intended, and the level of fine detail and overall clarity of the image is much improved. The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is also more pronounced, with much more aggressive bass and noticeably better isolation.
The 3-Disc Blu-ray set features a commentary track on the Pilot Episode on Disc 1, while the remaining supplements are housed on Disc 3, including:
The Murder House presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood: Fans of the show will be familiar with this bit, as it features tour guide, Stan (David Anthony Higgins), dishing out the gory details about the history of the Harmon’s new abode. This featurette uses clips from the show’s many flashback sequences as Stan relays the tales to his captive audience in his convertible tour van parked along poor Ben and Viv’s curb. (HD)
Behind the Fright: The Making of American Horror Story is a surprisingly lengthy (30 minutes) making of featurette, sporting cast and crew interviews, some behind-the-scenes footage, and a healthy dose of clippage from the series. (HD)
Overture to Horror: Creating the Title Sequence offers an in-depth look at the construction of the series twisted opening credits sequence (created by Kyle Cooper and his company Prologue, who are also responsible for the opening sequences for both Se7en and The Walking Dead). (HD)
Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts is a fairly self-explanatory extra as it introduces the deceased denizens of the Murder House, replete with backing story, and clips. (HD)
American Horror Story, like all good ghost stories, is equal parts scary, mysterious, and tragic, but, at the same time, it’s also quite humorous and extremely sexy stuff that will appeal to a very wide range of viewers. The Blu-ray presentation by Fox offers serious bang for the buck when one considers that the set can easily be had for under $30 dollars; not bad for 12 episodes of high quality horror goodness, made all the more a bargain by the inclusion of a generous amount of extras. VERY Highly recommended!