The Bloodshed Goes Full Vintage in ‘American Horror Story: 1984’
“American Horror Story: 1984” mixes into a blender every cliché, plot element and character stereotype of trashy ‘80s grindhouse, while also satirizing the genre itself, if not the decade. Leave it to the tirelessly creative Ryan Murphy and regular producing partner Brad Falchuk to do a show that is fully vintage while subverting the idea of nostalgia. It is the ninth edition of Murphy’s “AHS” anthology series, and it still feels fresh precisely because instead of endlessly stretching out one narrative, we get a whole new world and concept each season. Having explored everything from freak shows to the apocalypse, now the series settles on a new kind of fun by dabbling in the teen slasher thriller.
It is indeed 1984 in Los Angeles. The very innocent Brooke (Emma Roberts), a student at Santa Monica College, makes friends in aerobics class with wild Montana (Billie Lourd), gym buddies Chet (Gus Kenworthy) and Ray (DeRon Horton). Their de facto leader is aerobics instructor Xavier (Cody Fern), who is of course a “serious actor” waiting to break into the industry. It’s an edgy summer as Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, prowls the city and Xavier suggests the gang join him as instructors at a certain Camp Redwood to avoid any ensuing chaos. Brooke is at first hesitant, until the Night Stalker himself (played by Zach Villa) invades her apartment looking for jewelry, and luckily nothing else, although he does promise to find her with the help of Satan. Cut to the five friends driving out into the woods, hitting a strange pedestrian they decide to take along to tend his wounds (though Xavier wants to deny he ever hit the guy). At Camp Redwood they meet Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), the camp’s religiously conservative owner and her small team composed of a nurse, Rita (Angelica Ross) and cocky athletics director Trevor (Matthew Morrison). Why so few? Because Camp Redwood is infamous for a massacre that took place in 1970, committed by a Mr. Jingles who just so happens to have recently escaped from an asylum.
“1984” is a return to the more fun spirit of the whole “American Horror Story” premise, heedlessly celebrating campiness from a specific era. The first episode, “Camp Redwood,” basks in the kind of throwback style that’s been in vogue for a while now. The soundtrack features hits like Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” or Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” the opening title sequence looks like worn VHS. Director Bradley Buecker opens in 1970 with Mr. Jingles’s brutal murder of some Camp Redwood instructors as they cavort between bedsheets, complete with jagged close-ups and freeze frames of knives going through faces or slicing bodies. Mac Quayle, a regular Murphy collaborator, creates a synth-score that would make John Carpenter or Wes Craven proud. The look of the show makes every effort to take us into an environment befitting the Reagan era, with costumes and sets all set in those one-note colors and men’s shorts. The jocks snort cocaine in the van while riding to Camp Redwood, Montana looks like a Van Halen groupie and a creepy gas attendant warns the group they will surely die if they keep going to the accursed camp. Brooke is the innocent one, always properly dressed in nothing more than a sweater and jeans, harboring a secret crush on Chet, who shows off his biceps and laments being denied a spot on the Olympic team after failing a drug test. Any horror fan will easily guess who dies and who makes it. Or so we think.
Pause from the checklist of 80’s slasher necessities and pay close attention to what Murphy is doing here. One of the preeminent TV producers, Murphy stands out by refusing to follow the ongoing trends in peak television. Instead of attempting to make TV that copies cinema or attempts to be on par with it, he still celebrates television as an art form onto itself. His tastes are eclectic, as seen in the wide range of topics explored in shows as different as “Pose” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” “1984” is not just ‘80s nostalgia but a commentary on it. Margaret represents the emerging Christian conservatism of the era, giving the new instructors a whole speech on modern decadence which includes readily available porn and underwear that exposes one’s posterior. She survived Mr. Jingles’s brutal massacre and found salvation in Jesus (she’s also missing an era, which is Mr. Jingle’s signature cut). For once the only two black characters in the show don’t die first, and Chet becomes not so much a celebration of an ‘80s macho man as a satirizing of the era’s toxic masculinity. When Margaret insists on complete abstinence and keeping the sexes segregated, Xavier asks if she’s heard of the sexual revolution because “sex won.” Trevor steals much of the show as the hyper-horny bro at the camp, boasting that he was cut from Jane Fonda’s aerobics video because his manhood was too difficult to avoid. These characters are free to say out loud what was only hinted at or expressed through double speak in the decade itself.
Other moments are indeed pure stylistic homages to good trash. A Dr. Hopple (Orla Brady) drives in a rainstorm towards an asylum in an obvious homage to “Halloween,” where she discovers that Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) has escaped by pushing one of those absurd, all-encompassing buttons no actual asylum would ever have. We can all guess where he’s headed. Decked in a raincoat, with his jangling keys, this villain looks like a combo of every straight-to-video bad guy ever devised, with a dash of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” This first chapter covers every base so well, including the essential scene where Montana invites Trevor to skinny dip in the camp lake at night that we can only imagine what Murphy has in store for the rest of the season. Good fun is had in “AHS” regulars like Emma Roberts, Cody Fern and Leslie Grossman returning in vastly different roles from their previous characters.
Fittingly the episode ends amid rain and muddy forests, where Brooke is convinced she’s being chased by Richard Ramirez, which must be true and means we’ll get two serial killers for the price of one. “1984” is almost the perfect combination for both the casual TV viewer just seeking a bloody good time and the film buff or pop culture connoisseur who will feel ecstasy with all the vintage winks. Murphy has not misfired. It’s fun and demented, and that’s just the way it should be.
“American Horror Story: 1984” premieres Sept. 18 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.