‘American Horror Stories’: ‘AHS’ Spinoff Promises Different Tales Packed With Melodramatic Scares
Why settle for one Ryan Murphy horror series when you can have two? Streaming exclusively via FX on Hulu, “American Horror Stories” spins off from the maverick producer’s acclaimed cult hit “American Horror Story,” bringing back a few familiar details while changing the set-up. It’s an even more expanded take on the anthology format. While the original “AHS” offers a new theme or story every season, “Stories” will deliver a fresh scare in every episode. Appropriately Murphy and Brad Falchuk, his regular collaborator with whom he created “AHS,” pen the first tale to be told in this fresh series. With the spirit of a midnight double feature, the two-hour season premiere confirms, even when slightly repeating himself, that you can never call a Murphy-produced show boring.
The show kicks off with “Rubber (Wo)man,” which is set in the infamous “Murder House” fans will recognize from the first ever season of “AHS.” The house is being bought by a married gay couple, Michael (Matt Bomer) and Troy (Gavin Creel), who have a teenage daughter, Scarlett (Sierra McCormick). Michael and Troy are spending all they have on this place, with the intention of making money off of its reputation for being possibly haunted. Scarlett is a loner and restless. She’s also in the closet at school, until she gets a big crush on an alluring blond, Maya (Paris Jackson). Back at the house, Scarlett finds a curious object, a slick, black rubber bondage suit. She puts it on and sees a frightening vision of another figure in the suit, the Rubberman “AHS” fans will also recognize. When Michael and Troy confront Scarlett about watching BDSM porn on her computer, she rebels further and puts on the suit after a therapy session, discovering it can take possession of her and lead to murderous results. When Maya flirts with Scarlett and invites her to a slumber party, teenage humiliation will lead to further exposing the house’s dark secrets.
Going by the first two episodes, “American Horror Stories” will toss away all subtly for the guilty pleasures of drive-in horror. As with most of his shows, whether on FX or Netflix, Murphy’s productions swirl with vintage aesthetic and melodrama. When Scarlett puts on the black suit and wanders the halls of the house, knife in hand, her established musical theme is the whistling “Twisted Nerve” by Bernard Herrmann, first written for a thriller, and later made famous by another vintage obsessive, Quentin Tarantino, in “Kill Bill Vol.1.” The photography has the slick look of modern TV, but the acting and twists belong in a classic midnight movie. But like any good student of melodrama, Murphy is the over-the-top emotions and dialogue to also satirize or comment on America. Michael and Troy are hilariously written as suburban parents with overbearing tendencies. They confront Scarlett about her porn-viewing, after admitting they hired some IT tech to give them access to her laptop, before going into an uncomfortably awkward tangent about the dangers of watching BDSM at 16. Michael even asks Scarlett if she fantasizes about being the dominant or submissive.
The first episode in the two-part “Rubber (Wo)man” story can drag a little, mostly because it’s all set-up. But it ends on a grisly murder provoked by Maya humiliating Scarlett by recording a very personal confession and spreading it to that hellish orbit of high school. The next chapter becomes more of a full-throttle scare and melodrama fest, with the rules of the house’s ghosts established. The souls that haunt this home have been murdered or died here, and they can interact with visitors like any regular person, except, of course, they will never age. When Scarlett, possessed by the Rubberman, decides to kill Maya and her crew of “bitches,” she creates her own hell because now they inhabit the house. But she also starts a love affair with Ruby (Kaia Gerber), the knife-flipping spirit of a runaway who committed suicide in the house years ago. In Murphy World, a tragic romance begins like this, between the living and the dead. Scarlett could easily kill herself and join Ruby, but Ruby is herself dangerously possessive, so imagine spending eternity with a disturbed clinger.
Other plot developments just fly at us with funny abandon. Desperate to make a buck off the house and not lose their savings, Troy hires a handsome contractor he instantly flirts with, which annoys Michael. But watch out for a moment involving the contractor and a bloodied hammer when after smashing someone’s head he admits relief at being able to confess all his crimes to Michael and Troy, so they can all become partners in turning the place into a haunted Airbnb. Before that Troy couldn’t help himself and was secretly going down on the contractor, anyway. What sells it all are the great performances by actors playing it as if they were in some self-consciously bad ‘80s horror movie. And like the works of Stephen King, there is an attempt here to create a wider “AHS” universe. Michael starts seeing apparitions in the house, including another “AHS” character, Piggy Man.
Like a short story, “Rubber (Wo)man” eventually comes to a close, but with a heartfelt conclusion that borders on satire. After all the mayhem, Scarlett compromises with Ruby and vows to visit every Halloween, because it’s the one day the dead can venture beyond the house. Like the rest of the cast, Sierra McCormick is a real stand out. She also appeared in last year’s great but underseen “The Vast of Night,” a poetic hallucination about UFOs in a small ‘50s Texas town. She brings a real seriousness to the role but knows how to tap into the melodramatic flare. Sometimes she looks like she could have been in one of those ‘90s teen specials based on real-life cases, but with heightened acting for TV drama. But fans will tune in to see how “American Horror Stories” measures up next to its predecessor. It may not surpass it, yet, but it delivers plenty of bloody mayhem, wrapped in ludicrously fun satire.
“American Horror Stories” season one begins streaming July 15 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on FX on Hulu.