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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    ‘American Horror Story’ goes under the big tent

    Courtesy+of+Brad+Falchuk+Teley-Vision

    Courtesy of Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision

    The only thing more horrendous than the ensemble of freaks on the fourth season of “American Horror Story” is Kathy Bates’ strange Canadian-Southern-Irish accent.

    Of course, it must be difficult for the actors on this show to inhabit a  new character every season, but not even an Academy Award-winning actress like Bates should be given an excuse. This fourth installment of the FX horror series has Bates playing a bearded lady in a tribe of traveling circus freaks circa 1950s Florida.

    Jessica Lange once again emerges as the main matriarch of the show, this time portraying a Greta Garbo-wannabe with dismal hopes of someday becoming a marquee star. Having already portrayed a nosey neighbor, a rigid nun and an ageless witch in the show’s three previous seasons, her portrayal as ringleader Elsa is sure to be the most theatrical. Draped in high-fashioned feathers, Lange conquers every room she enters with her cool glances of hungry ambition.

    Though it may be Sarah Paulson who steals this season with her double-duty characterizations of conjoined sisters Dot and Bette. Distinguishing the sisters with polar opposite personalities, Paulson displays some talent that may just redeem her of the bland, forgettable character she played last season. Her best moments so far come from the heated, telekinetic exchanges Paulson voices over between Dot and Bette, and her on-the-mark facial reactions.

    Like with the three previous seasons of “American Horror Story,” the initial premise of season four remains somewhat incomplete. Creator Ryan Murphy introduces glimpses of colorful characters in the artificial world of 1950s America, yet leaves many circumstances purposefully unexplained, only to be revealed at a pivotal moment later on in the season.

    For instance, the second scene of the first episode features a nightmarish clown quietly invading an afternoon picnic of a Troy Donahue-type with a Sandra Dee-like girlfriend. After some quick bloodshed, the clown disappears, only to silently pop up again randomly throughout the episode. It’s this initial display of violence without reason that attracts viewers to explore the darkness of such fiendish characters for a full 13 episodes.

    The 1950s backdrop of this season is the perfect environment for the writers to satirize what we in hindsight now see as freakish behavior: Red Scare paranoia, atomic bomb propaganda and the introduction of the addictive television.

    The first episode already includes a taboo Tupperware party of sexually-suppressed housewives looking to get some “handy” relief from freak show performer, Lobster Boy (played by Evan Peters). It should be interesting to see how else the show will tarnish the campy customs of 1950s culture to suit its exploitive, shocking tone.

    The technical style of this season also embraces 1950s aesthetics reminiscent of classic B-horror movies such as “The Blob” or “Them!” Employing a nasally, high-pitched musical score, reflective of science fiction films of the era, creates an eerie sense that no one is who they claim to be — such as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” where everyone may be a little alienated underneath their own skin.

    The incorporation of a split-screen camera perspective is an ingenious idea to help the audience see the dual viewpoints of Paulson’s conjoined sisters. It’s a filmmaking method that is standard in the horror genre, and can be seen in classics such as “Carrie” and “Sisters.”

    Aside from the use of some new tricks, season four seems to follow the same formulaic pattern Murphy cemented with the show: A protagonist has a fatal flaw, a serial killer is lurking in the background, characters get killed off mid-season — then somehow always brought back to life — and there’s some strange subplot that seems to go nowhere. Remember the aliens from season two?

    Big-name stars like Angela Bassett and Emma Roberts have yet to make their entrance, but a viewer can already imagine where the characters will eventually end up even without many plot points.

    Murphy needs a bit more than smoke-and-mirrors to make this season really stand out from the rest, and I don’t think giving Bassett a third breast is enough to do the job.

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    Follow Kevin C. Reagan on Twitter.

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