TV Review: AMERICAN HORROR STORY ASYLUM Episode 1 'Welcome To Briarcliff'

PrintE-mail Written by Ian Mat

The surprise horror hit from the twisted minds behind Glee is back – but can they confound expectations again?

For someone who once saw an advert and pigeonholed Glee as a light-hearted sing-a-long feel-good kids’ thing, my hopes weren’t high for American Horror Story. Now I love it. Without a doubt it was the sickest, weirdest thing on screens last year with a cast nearly as good Game of Thrones.

So the problem facing American Horror Story: Asylum is arguably a much harder one – meeting its own expectations.

After effectively wrapping up every loose end in the first family-driven series, producers  Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk wisely wipe the slate clean and build a new locale in the form of a mental asylum in episode one, Welcome to Briarcliff.

Despite changing the time period back to 1964, we still get fan favourites Jessica Lange (dropping her Southern seductress accent from the first series to play ex-New Yoik sadistic Sister Jude) and the brilliant Evan Peters, swapping his blond curls, tortured cherub quality and shiny black gimp suit for an is he/isn’t he mad alien abduction victim cum serial killer called Bloody Face.

In series one we got introduced to the obligatory haunted house with a new family moving in. This time plucky reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) infiltrates the asylum to expose its secrets like what are the strange things the nuns are feeding in the surrounding woodlands? Why is Sister Jude so demented? What is Dr Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) doing to his patients? What continues to live in the asylum 50 years later and so on.

As a first episode, you can feel a bit punch drunk with all this mystery smacking you in the face, coupled with snazzy quick cut editing techniques and deliberately gloomy film work. But then, wasn’t that the same for series one?

There’s a lot of weirdness at work here – the whole alien abduction thing is strange, and strangely plausible towards the end of the episode – but the supernatural quota is minimal. No ghosts. Yet. And the modern era scenes of a dilapidated Briarcliff feel tacked on just to give the viewer an ironic tour of the asylum, though kudos to doing it via a pair of haunted mansion sex tourists.

On the plus side once things get going, key cast introduced, etc, the trademark manipulation unique to American Horror Story is shown through Lange’s entrapment of Paulson and the bubbling power play between her and Cromwell, who tries to recapture that old menace we saw in Captain Dudley Smith of LA Confidential. And we get freaks, mutants and nut jobs colliding with cane-armed nuns from The Sound of Music. What more do you want. Oh, and Zachary “Spock” Quinto hasn’t even made his series debut yet.

You’ll probably get a familiar shiver from the series’ stop-start random title music and begin trying to work out the back story of all the disparate elements thrown on the screen. And some of the Silent Hill-esque preview images and teasers put out there to whet audience’s appetites could make David Lynch scratch his head (I thought a White Nun was gin and crème de menthe, not something that looks built out of milk with oozing black eyes). But rest assured that after the completeness of the first series, the makers should answer all.

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