Note: This review was originally written by Roy Buckingham (aka JesterDFW) and recovered from oblivion by Matt Morrison (aka StarmanMatt)
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
The anthology horror series that has brought us freaks, witches and the apocalypse now brings us to the year 1984 for its ninth season. It’s the fabled year when Ronald Reagan was President, aerobics studios were singles bars, cocaine was the drug of choice and the Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles.
Yet it was also a summer of terror in California, due to a man named Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker. Throw this history into a blender, along with every single stereotype and cliche from the classic slasher movies of the same era, and you have American Horror Story – Season 9.
In this premiere episode, we are introduced to our core group of characters. Our main protagonist is Brooke (Emma Roberts), a new girl in Los Angeles, who meets the rest of our gang at an aerobics studio. Upon learning about The Night Stalker, instructor Xavier (Cody Fern) invites Brooke and the rest of the gang to spend the summer with him, working as counselors at a summer camp far away from the city. Making up the rest of the group are Montana (Billie Lourd), Chet (Gus Kenworthy) and Ray (DeRon Horton). All of them accept Xavier’s offer, except for the shy Brooke.
However, that all changes after Brooke survives an encounter with Richard Ramirez. Fearing retaliation, Brooke joins the rest of the gang at Camp Redwood, which turns out to have a murderous past. Camp Redwood is also in the midst of being reopened by former camper/religious nut Margaret (Leslie Grossman), despite the “death curse” people say hangs over the camp. This is due to an incident in the 1970’s, where a serial killer named “Mr. Jingles” (John Carrol Lynch) slaughtered nine people at the camp. Naturally, Mr. Jingles escapes from the insane asylum where he was being held on the the same weekend Camp Redwood is set to reopen and heads back to finish the job he started years earlier.
Anyone who is even broadly familiar with the Friday the 13th or Halloween franchises will spot all the classic tropes on display. The summer camp with a dark past. The lone virgin girl among the drug-taking, booze-drinking peers. The escapee from a mental institution. The creepy old man who tells people they are doomed. Even that old favorite, the cat-jump scare – All are here, present and accounted for, ready to be enjoyed.
While I did enjoy this pilot episode, I could not help and think that this may have seemed a bit more original and clever if we did not live in a world where Scream existed. The Scream franchise already skewered the slasher genre and its’ stereotypes, including sequels and reboots. In a weird way, this episode felt like it was retreading the same path the Scream films already explored. It doesn’t help matters that Roberts was in the Scream franchise.
That being said, there was still much to admire about this episode The unique aesthetic of 1984 is perfectly captured, particularly when it comes to fashion choices and trends. Having been a child of the 1980s in Southern California, a lot of this episode stirred nostalgic memories of the era for me. The episode also has the direction and pacing an 80’s slasher horror movie, which does help in selling itself.
What really makes this season stand out so far, however, is the acting. While everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine throughout the episode, it is Billie Lourd who steals the show. As the sexually charged Montana, she chews the scenery with gusto, as if they took the DNA of every horny teen girl with a bleach-bottle hairdo from the horror movies of the era and mixed them to create this one character.
My biggest fear with this season is what my biggest fear is with every season of American Horror Story: mid-season story fatigue. In previous years, the show has run out of steam, dropping plot points and changing direction in a way it hopes will be edgy but often fails. While I do keep coming back for more, this can get frustrating. Still, I have high hopes for the season after this premiere, but I hope it does not get lost in itself later on.