This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story 1984 Episode 2
This is one of the most common problems in a slasher movie: there aren’t enough people to kill to fill the film’s running time. Kills tend to be front-loaded or back-loaded, with a bit of a flabby portion in the middle where nobody’s getting killed, or the kills are coming too slowly to justify the existence of the crazed slasher. 1984 bucks that trend almost immediately. Without much preamble, the killing begins in earnest, as does the muddying of the waters regarding just who the real killer is.
Brooke (Emma Roberts) has been deployed in a very skillful way to imply that a lot of the things she’s seeing and hearing are simply manifestations of her overwrought imagination. No one else saw the dead hitchhiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) that Mr. Jingles killed, or the Night Stalker that’s been tracking her all throughout Camp Redwood. Even the news report she hears regarding the killing at the gas station from last week could be all in her head; the room is full of people, and she’s the only person who hears about the murder and how it might be connected to the Night Stalker operating in Los Angeles. The only one who puts a little credence in her story is Montana, and that’s because she has romantically ulterior motives regarding Brooke that she reveals at what might be the worst possible time to kiss someone.
“Mr. Jingles” is an episode that features a couple of character backstories, including more about Richard Ramirez. Granted, his biography should be familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in serial killers—that would probably cover all of the American Horror Story audience at this point—but it’s delivered very well, told in very engaging fashion during a strange meet cute camp counseling session. Ramirez and Margaret Booth seem to be determined to out-crazy one another in a very well-written scene credited to Tim Minear.
To the credit of both Leslie Grossman and Zach Villa, their pairing feels more natural than it perhaps should. After all, he’s a serial killer and she’s allegedly a serial killer survivor. More importantly, they both are trauma survivors that share strong religious beliefs. As Margaret implies, you can’t have Satan without God, and there are two ingredients for the type of freedom that Ramirez seeks: God and trauma. Ramirez seems swayed by this, though it’s a certainty that he will ignore that whole thing about “no more killing at the camp” and she’ll turn on him the moment he loses his usefulness in tracking down the Hiker.
Brooke’s history is fleshed out as well. She not only survived a run-in with a serial killer rapist, she also survived a massacre on her wedding day committed by the man she was supposed to marry. Driven by jealous paranoia, he shot his best man, Brooke’s father, and himself while standing at the altar after accusing her of cheating on him (without any real evidence of that). After a trauma like that, no wonder the Night Stalker isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to Brooke. Emma Roberts and Billy Lourd both do great work in this scene, too, with Lourd having a lot of fun with Montana’s fat camp story and Roberts doing some impressive dramatic heavy lifting in the flashback sequence, and some solid terror acting throughout the episode.
That terror acting was crucial to the episode, because once things got started, they did not slow down. John J. Gray paced the episode wonderfully, with some very skillful shot selection and some great match cuts, particularly during the final moments of the episode in which the counselors and staff, split into two groups to recover keys for various vehicles, are both trapped in their respective locations by possibly different killers, one being the Night Stalker and the other Mr. Jingles. Fairly simple things, like Xander being grabbed and dragged into a waiting car, hit with significant impact because they follow slasher movie routines of hard cut editing.
Blake (Todd Stashwick), the mystery voice who threatened Xander’s answering machine, is a wealthy pornographer who brought Xander in, cleaned him up from his heroin addiction, and turned him into a gay porn star. That Xander owes him, in Blake’s mind, is without question, even if Xander is resistant to participating further. (Xander promptly throws the well-endowed Trevor under the bus, and pushes Blake in front of the shower peep hole that must be de rigeur in every summer camp slasher.)
Someone, either Jingles or the Night Stalker or another killer TBD, kills Blake in a beautifully brutal fashion in another great shock scene. The impaled skull was probably CGI, but very good work, and the Hiker’s multiple deaths were all practical work. For all the good CGI has done, there’s nothing better than a baggie full of rubber entrails and a tube pumping blood. The classic effects style just looks better, and fits with 1984‘s cheesy aesthetic in a way that computer trickery just can’t.
American Horror Story: 1984 isn’t a completely clean take on the slasher genre. It’s replicating the look, feel, and style of ’80s horror through a modern lens, but it’s not a post-modern re-imagining of those campy flicks. It’s knowing, and informed by the history of the genre, but it doesn’t wink at the audience (references aside). It’s not quite a straight-up slasher film, but it’s not a slasher comedy, either. It’s kind of like if Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers was made today, or if Black Dynamite were a TV series.
It’s a series that has fun with the genre, but also takes the genre seriously. It’s not poking fun, it’s trying (and thus far succeeding) at being a slasher with a sense of humor. Part of that fun is watching a cast of good actors inhabiting stock characters with modern twists (Xavier is involved in gay porn and might be gay himself, Chet admits to using steroids, Ray is an orderly who appears to be afraid of dead bodies, the oversexed Montana is bisexual, the girl with the big chest is replaced by a guy with a huge penis, none of the black characters have died thus far, and so on). Also enjoyable is the fairly subtle use of references (I caught a snippet of incidental music from Friday the 13th this week).
And, let’s be honest, a lot of the fun is watching people get killed. The same base impulses that drew people to slasher movies will draw people to 1984. Pretty people getting carved up by a pair of monsters with blades will always have a place in horror. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk continue to tap into that.