It’s 04:00 hrs, A.M. in the morning and I haven’t got time to write up a real review of American Horror Story: Cult but just need to tell you that the season opener is a sublime piece of television!
Okay, so it’s not high art; it’s no Hannibal or The Leftovers but from Ally’s opening seven minute descent into hell as she witnesses Donald Trump’s election night win – perfectly intercut with Kai’s best insane clown-posse impresssion – to the final jump scare – it’s simply perfect in achieving what it sets out to do – thrill, entertain and provoke feelings of terror and revulsion towards Trump and his merry gang of nazi followers.
Unlike so many other shows who’s writers and directors and editors don’t understand that television is an organic entity – Ryan Murphy and his gang understand that not only is there a living, breathing relationship between what goes on screen and the audience, they understand that this relationship extends further than the mise-en-scène – it goes all the way back to the creation, writing and shaping of the show.
As The Beatles put it so eloquently – “All You Need Is Love”
Auteur TV like American Horror Story, Fargo (also FX) and Mr Robot (USA Network) has an energy running through it like a vein of gold through rock. This energy begins as a spark in the writer/director’s brain, travels through their fingers onto the page and there, in the script, this energy becomes contagious.
A zombie virus of creativity made from pure love gains momentum through all the meetings and makes its way onto the set. It becomes part of the set design’s furniture, lighting, actor’s performances until it is captured by the camera lens where it becomes pure light before travelling via the edit suite onto our screens to light up our hearts.
So clowns and ice-cream trucks and oboes and nursery rhyme-like music and jump scares are basic horror tropes but looking down on them is like looking down on musical notes. We only enjoy music because we know what’s coming next – we can anticipate a drumbreak or middle eight. Music, film and TV thrive on anticipation. Good art toys with this feeling by delivering expectations via the scenic route, great art subverts them. Bad TV never comes out to play.
The slow realisation that “Fuck! Is that the clown on the back seat?” is this relationship playing with the audience… and that is what good television should do.
It’s not only back-seat clowns, AHS utilises every second – every frame is dripping with intent, the makers know how to play, they know a simple low-angle, close-up of a wobbling shopping cart wheels raises tension, tehy know a Spielberg Zoom smacks Ally’s terror into your very being. But it’s not only these horror techniques, these auters understand the overlooked technique of how best and when to reveal information.
The gasp of realisation (from me) that Kai’s self-harming and clearly fucked-up sister, Winter was about to get the job as nanny to Ally and Ivy’s son, Ozzie as Billie Lourde innocently walks down their street was palpable.
Moments like these are what film and television is about. Will it stand the test of time and feel the same in three years, probably not but this is zeitgeist. There was more raw, visceral realness, more emotion, more filmmaking mastery in the opening seven minute pre-titles than in seven seasons of Game of Thrones…
Compare and contrast Sarah Paulson, the best actress working in TV right now, and Evan Peters’ performance in those opening scenes with Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark or Finn Jones’ Danny Rand for two acting masterclasses.
I know I’m comparing apples and oranges (a polished trailer with something not for mass consumption) but watch Sophie’s audition tape and ask yourself if you would cast her in the biggest TV show of all time, then watch Paulson and Peters here:
For all of Game of Thrones near-billion dollar budget, in terms of emotion, you might as well be watching a blank screen.
I’m not talking about the acting or characters or the story, I’m sure there are some worthy scenes – with horses and dragons and thousands of extras, the battles are incredible – I’m talking about raw, filmmaking energy.
The difference is that the people making American Horror Story: Cult know what they’re doing. They not only understand the (admittedly easy) tropes of film and television horror, but have a genuine love what they are creating and it shines through every scene.
If there isn’t a second American Civil War between now and then, American Horror Story: Cult continues on Tuesday, 12th September only on FX.