Tuesday, 17 October 2017

October Nightmares III #17: American Horror Story (2011 - ) - British Horror Review

The whole 'American Noun' naming convention for films, books, TV series, albums, whatever, pisses me right off. American Pyscho, American History X, American Beauty, American Gangster, American Graffiti; American Gigolo, American Sniper, American Dad!, American Ninja, American Pie - the list is seemingly endless. The idea seems to be that adding American to the title will either: inspire enough patriotism to conjure gun-toting, communism-hating, fat bald eagles, or serve to satirise the corruption, greed, uncontrollable violence, and hollow consumerism at the heart of the nation.

Mostly it just makes the title sound like some bland, discount super-market knock-off of a superior product.

American Horror Story is as bland a title you can get for a television show. I suppose an anthology series which deals with a different story each season would have to be as vaguely named as possible. But this takes the piss as, of the three words in the title, only 'American' comes remotely close to being accurate. For a series which fills its plotlines with serial killers, ghosts, witches, circus freaks, and vampires, it's fairly light on the horror. And the show has a story in the same way The Very Hungry Caterpillar had a story.

I am not a fan of AHS. It's horror for people who think Nandos is fine dining. As a series, AHS is great a coming up with horror concepts, such as gimp suit wearing serial killers, or old-school asylums with connections to aliens and Nazi doctors. And the anthology format lends itself well to a pulpy horror show, with each mini-series serving like a new story in a short-story collection. But it's ultimately a show about the idea of horror, than anything particularly scary. Which is why they killed off the killer clown to focus on Crab Boy.

There's nothing remotely pulp horror about AHS. The third season (AHS: Coven) took its sleevey, bedraggled, dreamy witches by way of Stevie Nicks conceit too far when the writers actually had Stevie Nicks appear in an episode called 'The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks'. Fucking hell, that's like when Stephen King writes himself into one of his novels as God.

When it comes right down to it, AHS is mostly about things happening to people. Yes, you can say that about any show. Breaking Bad was a show about things happening to people. The difference being that the people in AHS are utterly unlikable; either crude stereotypes, or non-characters whose respective arcs don't go anywhere interesting fast. It's an unfocused show, grabbing on story strand after story strand like an Octopus at an orgy. I saw the first episode of season seven aka AHS: Cult and there's a middle-class, fully grown, woman who gets triggered and 'can't even' after seeing the news of Trump winning the presidential election. The guy who actually likes Trump isn't much better. You better buckle up, this is how fiction is going to be for the next few years.

You know what: American Horror Story can fuck off. I'm going to review something else I've seen recently and actually enjoyed instead. Namely, Blade Runner 2049.

What an absolutely astonishing film Blade Runner 2049 is: a rare sequel which knows how to handle itself correctly and looks the absolute business. BR2049 occasionally pays loving reverence to the original Blade Runner, but never lingers for too long. It's a generous lover, but not that generous. We're presented with the same hellish urban dystopias - which look like you're being navigated through the insides of a 90's era PC - with their squalid markets, crumbling public buildings, flying cars, and fancy, almost Ancient Egyptian inspired, corporate mega-structures. 
In a way the universe offered up by the original Blade Runner was the real American horror story; depicting a world run by Capitalistic excess, every inch of it plastered in ever-pervasive neon adverts, and the resilient American government has been neutered by foreign and corporate interests. For a nation enamoured with the notion of liberty, a world where even the idea of humanity has been chained and devalued by mass-marketed replicants (androids) and AI must be the scariest story of all. BR2049 continued this setting, but combined it with modern trends invented by wannabe dystopian overlords like Google. I know I, for one, cannot wait to be hovered up by a futuristic sex industry filled with sexy subservient AI girlfriends like Joi (Ana de Armas).
There's a reason Blade Runner and Neuromancer cyberpunk worlds have endured for nearly as long as Star Wars' space opera setting. They're utterly iconic. You know BR2049 is cyberpunk because it looks like a Japanese rave and sounds like Hans Zimmer is fisting a cow sized synthesizer. And you know BR2049 is noir because Ryan Gosling's Officer K, a skin job, walks his beat on the mean streets of Neo LA in a trench coat, brooding like the tough one in a boy band as he hunts rogue robots. This is Gosling's deal and he fits it more naturally than even Harrison Ford did back in '82.
BR2049 is a film bound for box office failure, cult status. It's not an easy film. The plot's a slow-burner and the film fills its run time with a noirish sense of danger and existentialism. And like the original it's not as smart as it thinks, or at least superficially - the lingering questions and ambiguities will no doubt imbue the film with the same mystique as the original years down the line. BR2049 is certainly easy on the eye, however, its cinematography is master level. The contrast of the shadowy urban world (even in K's home, weirdly) with the almost hallucinatory and unearthly yellow hue of the Nevada desert, is downright startling. And I loved how all the Tech, despite being produced by modern effects, had the blocky low-fi vibe of 80's Tech.
When I said American Horror Story was a merely show about 'things just happening to people', I meant it as a criticism. BR2049 is a film about 'things just happening to people', but it's an exploration of meaning, of what makes a human, of the soul, of wanting to be special. Which makes the brutal ending for K's story hilarious - sort of like when your parents tell you that you were an accident. All he wants is to be special. Special K, even.
Which made me think. Deckard is only in this film for half an hour but K's still only there to service his story. BR2049 is a film about finding out that you're actually only a side character in somebody else's story. And- Christ, I better get back to American Horror Story.

I'm a flippant bastard, but tell me this - if I can spend most of an American Horror Story 'review' talking about Blade Runner 2049 and arrive at the same conclusion, what does that say about the show?  I chose AHS for a review (despite knowing full well that I wasn't going to properly review it) because as one of the most popular shows of television, it serves as a good indication at the modern state of horror.

Imagine modern horror is a colouring book. AHS is fine when it stays in the lines of spooky imagery and atmosphere, but it gets too full of itself and goes right out of the lines. Instead of utilising its twisted creations fully, the show sticks us with a bunch of cretins. It's the illusion of horror, but all it wants to do is show Lady Gaga fuck someone in the wood. Or maybe throw in a couple of gratuitous rapes, or Jessica Lange singing Life on Mars. Which is the same thing if you think about it.

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