This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story 1984 Episode 1
I have a lot of difficulty remembering character names, even on shows I watch regularly (and write about). I hate that I’m like this, and the older I get, the worse my memory becomes. When dealing with American Horror Story‘s ensemble cast, my inability to remember who is who only becomes worse, because despite the characters all being different, the cast remains basically the same. So, Brooke (Emma Roberts) ends up being Madison Montgomery, Montana becomes Billy Lourd, Margaret becomes “whatshername, you know, she was so good on the show last year,” and so on.
Thankfully, 1984 does me a kindness early on in the episode with a flashy introduction to each character, complete with their names spelled out in Gem and the Holograms font, just after the opening credits. Another thing that helped is the fact that, immediately after introduction, the characters for 1984 are slotted into their appropriate ’80s slasher movie tropes. There’s the tough girl, Montana (Lourd), the jock Chet (real-world Olympian Gus Kenworthy) who missed out on the Olympics thanks to failing a drug test, the party guy Ray (DeRon Horton), the most ’80s guy imaginable Xavier (Cody Fern), and the non-doping, only lightly-drinking potential final girl Brooke (Emma Roberts).
Fittingly for both American Horror Story and a story set in an ’80s slasher universe, there’s no time wasted in making references to famous slasher movies. The cold opening, three camp counselors fooling around while being menaced by a set of jingling keys, is straight out of a Friday the 13th movie, right down to a body being slowly dragged away from a murder scene by the show’s hulking supposed villain, Mr. Jingles AKA Ben Richter (John Carroll Lynch, making an immediate impression with his deranged lunatic skullet and great “hulking killer” body language). It’s a great introduction to this world, with a dead-on tonal impression of a Spam in a cabin movie heightened with some great practical effects.
As it turns out, Jingles isn’t just a story made up by Nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) to scare a bunch of newbie camp counselors escaping LA to avoid the craziness of the 1984 Olympics, but a real killer who really killed 9 campers in the worst summer camp massacre in history. A massacre that took place on the very grounds of Camp Redwood, where Brooke and the gang have decided to work for the summer. And the ultra-conservative owner of Camp Redwood, Margaret (Leslie Grossman)? She’s the only person to survive Mr. Jingles’ onslaught of terror, and the only person who thinks that reopening Camp Redwood is a good idea.
The trip two hours outside LA takes Brooke from the aerobics studio, where she has a meet cute with Montana and gets an introduction to the other characters, to Redwood, and along the way they have pretty much every bad horror movie omen happen to them save car trouble (but it’s a given that Xavier’s shaggin’ wagon won’t start when it’s needed most). They stop for gas only to be menaced by Roy (Don Swayze), a creepy dude who warns them off of going to Camp Redwood, and they also hit a hiker who comes stumbling out of the woods. The hiker lives, at least for a little while, but the mood has been set, and things only get more ominous from there.
Even in the first minute of the episode, the horror and ’80s references are crammed in like sardines. The whole setup is reminiscent of Friday the 13th meets Madman, especially the scene where they recount the legend of Mr. Jingles around a campfire. Roy is a reference to several characters from Friday the 13th, with his name coming from the fake Jason in Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning and his death coming from several movies all put together. The pay telephone being a crucial plot point makes me think of Psycho II. Mr. Jingles’ escape from the insane asylum on the other side of the lake from Camp Redwood is a reference to Rob Zombie’s Halloween, while the scene of two doctors discussing the escape in the pouring rain is a direct reference to the original Halloween. The ominous phone call at the end of the episode felt a lot like a riff on the heavy breather from Black Christmas. Throw a rock, hit a slasher reference, basically.
1984 is nothing new, but Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk impress because they manage to cram in so much into a pretty compact opening episode. The characters are established immediately, and it’s clear that Lourd is having a lot of fun playing against type as the wild girl. The characters provide a few laughs by mostly playing things straight, akin to Sleepaway Camp (one of the campers will definitely be named Angela, if the campers arrive) with hints of Wet Hot American Summer‘s winking playfulness. Aside from one or two anachronisms, like the use of the phrase “my bad,” it’s spot-on.
The script is bolstered by solid performances all around, and Bradley Buecker’s strong direction reinforces both positive aspects of the show. The opening credits are a thing of ’80s beauty, and Buecker must have been studying the ’80s slasher playbook because he nails the tone and shooting style, right down to recreation of some of the flaws of the genre. The camera wobbles during certain tracking shots because it’s just being carried by a guy and not on a boom, and there are some clear optical zooms. All the show is missing is film grain, but thankfully it wasn’t added in digitally akin to the aging effects in Planet Terror.
As solidly as Roanoke nailed reality television, 1984 nails the slasher sub-genre. For the most part, it avoids winking at the camera, Matthew Morrison’s Trevor aside, and the episode works as a great setup for what’s to come. What this is going to be is communicated early on in the episode, even it leaves in openings to work in further appearances from real serial killer Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez (Zach Villa) in between appearances from the fictional Mr. Jingles. Like the best slashers, this is shaping up to be a lot of dumb fun with a lot of great kills.
Let’s get physical.