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Last night, American Horror Story kicked off season two of the popular anthology series from Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. The first episode of American Horror Story: Asylum was aptly titled “Welcome to Briarcliff,” and revolved around a sanitarium for the criminally insane run by the Catholic Church under the sharp eye of the sadistic Sister Jude (played by Jessica Lange, who stole the show last season in the supporting role of Constance and clearly is looking to do the same in the lead actress role this year).
The show opens in present day with two honeymooning newlyweds (played by Maroon Five’s sexy Adam Levine and Channing Tatum’s equally gorgeous wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum) exploring the run-down ruins of Briarcliff – they’re touring the United States’ most haunted places for their honeymoon. Between their steamy sessions, we manage to get a little bit of Briarcliff’s troubled history. It was built in 1908 as a tuberculosis ward, and more than 46,000 people died there. The dead were moved out through an underground “death chute” (I’m sure we’ll be seeing that pretty soon). It was purchased by the Catholic Church in 1962 and turned in to an institution for the criminally insane – charming. The episode jumps between Levine and Dewan-Tatum’s characters exploring the institution in the present day (I won’t give away all the details, but things start going really badly for them pretty quick!) and a story unfolding in 1964.
Flash back to 1964: we meet gas station attendant and newlywed Kit (played by Evan Peters, last season’s charmingly psychopathic Tate). He’s in a secret and taboo mixed-race relationship, but seems blissfully happy with his lovely wife. Suddenly I feel like we’re watching a scene from The X-Files circa 1996, because bright white lights start flashing everywhere, wind starts blowing, and Kit (and everything metal in the house) get stuck to the ceiling. Where’s Fox Mulder when you need him? Kit’s wife is screaming for help and we later learn that she is ultimately murdered (skinned alive), and it’s the third in a series of murders by a killer dubbed Bloody Face, because he supposedly wears the victim’s skin as a mask. Our boy Kit takes the rap for being Bloody Face and lands in Briarcliff while they try to determine if he’s sane to stand trial.
At Briarcliff we meet a host of interesting and disturbing characters – both inmates and hospital staff. The hospital’s creepy new doctor, Arthur Arden, is butting heads with Sister Jude because he worships science over religion – also, his patients keep mysteriously disappearing. He claims they died, but produces no bodies…which can’t be good. We later learn there’s something living in the woods that needs to eat raw meat, so I’m guessing the good doc is up to some Frankenstein-esque experimentation.
Reporter Lana (played by Sarah Paulson) knows Sister Jude is hiding something and wants to write a Pulitzer-worthy piece on Briarcliff and Bloody Face. Unfortunately, when she goes poking around she ends up getting more than she bargained for and is committed against her will – at least she’ll be able to offer a firsthand account of life at Briarcliff…if she ever gets out alive.
We meet some more of the inmates, like the mysterious Grace, who is accused of chopping up her family and wants to help Kit because, like herself, she knows he’s innocent. There’s a guy who throws poop, a deformed woman who killed her sister’s baby, and a nymphomaniac, just to name a few of Briarcliff’s charming residents. Sister’s Jude’s right-hand man – er, woman – seems like a bumbling idiot, but I definitely suspect she’s smarter than she lets on, and she seems to be in cahoots with Arden.
This episode brought some serious crazy but, in my opinion, offered few true frights. I thought it paled in comparison to the first season’s premiere, which nearly had me sleeping with the lights on! I feel like Falchuk and Murphy are trying to see how much they can cram in to one plot – creepy nuns, possible Nazis, serial killers, monsters, ghosts, aliens, mental patients, and more. Not to mention sex and nudity galore – and this is just the first 60 minutes of the season!
As over the top as last season was at times, it worked (for the most part). This season already feels like it’s trying too hard and missing some of the subtle moments of building tension and suspense that make for great horror. Also, while last season I found myself wishing both Lange and Peters would have more screentime, now that they do, let’s see if they’re still as enjoyable to watch. Both seemed to be trying out a slight Boston accents (think Leo in Shutter Island) but no one else in the cast seemed to get that memo. Lange, however, did bring some subtly and mystery to a character that could easily have been ludicrous – the woman can definitely act! Despite my disappoint with the premiere (which may have been largely due to the high expectations I had based on last season), the story certainly has potential, and I’ll give it the benefit of assuming that rather than being so busy, subsequent episodes will dive deeper into individual stories and deliver more psychological freights rather than campy gimmicks.