‘American Horror Story: Double Feature’ Brings Familiar Faces to Beloved Creatures
Success is an addiction. All the truly prosperous creators are junkies looking to fix on the lifeblood of the ordinary. Ask anyone who believes in the connection between Spirit Cooking and a failed White House run. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of the FX horror anthology series, don’t really live in this world, they just feed on it. With “American Horror Story: Double Feature,” they double dip in the surf and turf. Season 10 will be split into two parts, sea and sand, “Red Tide” and “Death Valley,” and both get between your toes.
“Part I: Red Tide,” which will make up the first six episodes, feels eerily like a Stephen King story. Not necessarily one he wrote, possibly something he lived. He is a successful writer, who must have passed through Cape Cod at least once or twice, possibly on his way to Jerusalem’s Lot, whose extras now live as beach bums here. Harry Gardner (Finn Wittrock) is a screenwriter. He’s mainly worked on cop procedurals and other cookie cutter content. Now he has to shape up and get with the times, according to his agent Ursula (Leslie Grossman). He ships off from the city, where distractions have given him a bad case of writer’s block, to Provincetown, Mass., for the winter. Isolation and writer’s block are a dynamite combo, we know from King’s “The Shining.” This particular isolated beach town was home to the legendary author Norman Mailer, whose gravestone we see in one cutaway, and hope to catch in some midnight feeding.
Famed romance novelist Belle Noir (Frances Conroy) and noted playwright Austin Sommers (Evan Peters), also winter in town. They never leave without finishing something marvelous, if they do say so themselves, which is often. On their downtime, they perform as a duo at a piano lounge to an audience of male prostitutes with no sense of timing, and desperation as cologne. Though they get down much deeper than that. Nothing succeeds like duress. The two characters ooze charm, and promise danger from the moment they buy Harry a drink to clear his head.
Harry also dragged his pregnant wife Doris (Lily Rabe) along, as well as their daughter Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), a precocious violinist whose goal is to be first seat at the New York Philharmonic. Kids these days. But Alma is willing to put in the hours, practicing Paganini until either her fingers or her parents’ ears bleed. It’s a good sign. She’ll go places with this kind of dedication. “In the army they shoot soldiers who fall asleep on guard duty,” she tells her father, after the family experiences one too many in a series of escalating incidents of distress.
The show builds the suspense slowly, but consistently, before the drug-addled opening theme even drips off the screen like it’s medical grade PVC tubing. Set in the bright sunlight of crashing waves and frothing salt, darkness encroaches laterally, like a rip tide. From the very opening, perils litter the creative journey like so much roadkill. “For some reason it’s sadder when a cat dies than when a raccoon does,” notes young Alma, already noticing the foreshadowing like they are spaces between notes of sheet music. The welcoming committee, with a keen ear for fake Boston accents, cheerily reminds the incoming family every house in Provincetown is haunted. Right after she says the Pilgrims landed there before they went on to Plymouth. Not that anyone would want the Gardners to move, or anything like that. Strangers are very welcome in town. Just so long as they leave any place they stay more haunted than when they got there.
The neighborhood aura is somewhat less inviting than it is intimidating as red lights turn on at every house Harry approaches on a friendly stroll through town. But leave it to TB Karen (Sarah Paulson) to say what everyone’s thinking. Harry and his family don’t belong there, and the residents are going to munch on his balls if he doesn’t do something about that quickly. The town is full of writers, so she probably means that as an allegory. Soon things start happening which just can’t be put off to Lyme disease, the bane of existence and the cause of almost all misery in the world.
Doris is just a little too obsessed with Lyme disease. But obsession is another Stephen King specialty, and when it is paired with Harry actually writing the word “ideas” on an empty page in a notebook, the comparison to the iconic “All work and no play” sequence is unavoidable. Like Wendy in “The Shining,” Doris obviously can’t tell when Harry is writing, even when his fingers are flying over a keyboard. It probably has something to do with comparing shades of white for interior decoration. More likely, however, it is a symptom of Lyme disease, which cannot be blamed for the newest dead body in the three-month, paid-in-advance rental.
Chief Burelson (Adina Porter) has got to be the least reassuring cop on the New England Sound. When Doris and Alma are chased by the understudies of the original “Nosferatu,” she assures them of the anecdotal probabilities of their safety. When Harry is forced to kill one in self-defense in his own kitchen, Burelson says “good for you,” and his house should be safe now that he’s bashed in the head of a mouthy intruder. She’s not much more comforting on the beach, when Harry encounters the first dead body he’s ever seen. She rhapsodizes over how rare it is that this should happen. But, hey, it’s like this is the Truro murders, now those were impressive killings. Burelson stops short of telling Harry he should feel grateful for having such a bounty of gore bestowed upon him. She’s seen worse. We get the feeling she’ll do worse before the series ends.
“American Horror Story: Double Feature” is off to a startling, subversive start. Lounge lizard hustler Mickey (Macaulay Culkin) puts it best when he points out how the shark in “Jaws” is the good guy. Those bodies on the beach are the driftwood of old vendettas. The point is driven home, loudly, by Lark (Billie Lourd), accompanied by the sound of drills, as she adjusts Harry’s teeth to make it easier to snack between meals.
Over the last 10 seasons, “American Horror Story” and its errant troupe of terrifying players, have been locked in an asylum, overbooked a stay at a haunted hotel, traveled the southeast in a traveling freak show, and brought together two very powerful covens of witches. They survived the apocalypse, weathered “Scream Queens,” and kept Lobster Boy’s claws an incandescent red. The sneak peak promises some kind of alien incursion. With this installment, they reach further into the darkest depths of traditional horror. Purloining newborns for their sweet innocent juices has been a staple in the diet of disquieting literature since Dennis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” If someone in town has a taste for babies while Doris is so obviously in her last stages of pregnancy, it bodes deliciously unwell for future episodes.
“American Horror Story: Double Feature” premieres Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. with new episodes airing Wednesdays on FX.