This American Horror Story 1984 review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story 1984 Episode 3
Just when you thought things couldn’t be any more confusing, American Horror Story amps up the weirdness in the weird year 1984. First, there was a real-life serial killer worked into a fictional story. Then there was a fictional serial killer who turned out to be real in the fictional story world. Now, as far as I can tell, everyone who traveled to Camp Redwood has some sort of terrible, dark secret they’re just waiting to expose to the world, via action or confession, though they may not live long enough to see the repercussions of their actions fully wrought upon them.
Last week, the focus of the episode was on Brooke and Xavier’s back stories. Interesting stuff, but nothing especially relevant to the current plot. The reveals in “Slashdance”, however, prove to be much more important, and carry much more weight when explaining just why two particular characters act in the strange ways that they do. The show’s two medical professionals, Ray (DeRon Horton) and Rita (Angelica Ross) are exposed for who they really are, literally and figuratively.
Throughout the episode, and throughout the series, Ray has had one solid through-line. He’s a coward. He works in a hospital, and yet he’s afraid of blood. This week, when Brooke suggests that they stick together and fight their killer off as a group—a perfectly reasonable tactic given they have the advantage and the Night Stalker only has a small knife—Ray opts for the more cowardly way out, suggesting that they split up and that since he’ll be faster than at least two of them, will have a better chance of survival that way. At least he’s honest about his self-serving nature, even if all his cowardice does is put him at the head of the line when the Night Stalker finally breaks down the cabin door and comes after Brooke.
Ray, as we find out during a flashback sequence after he and Chet get trapped in a pit, always tends to err on the side of saving his own skin versus doing the right thing. As it turns out, while trying to be supportive of a fellow minority pledging his fraternity, Ray accidentally kills him, or so he believes, by allowing him to fall drunkenly down the stairs.
Rather than do the right thing, Ray does the easy thing—after all, calling the cops won’t make the poor pants-less pledge any less dead—and decides to fake an accident to hide the death. Anyone who has ever watched a horror movie knows that covering up a death never works out well, and that the person thought dead is rarely ever actually dead. Ray, who can’t stop the car from rolling down the cliff, ensures that the pledge is dead by trying to cover up the initial death.
Chet, who finds himself impaled on a punji stick at the bottom of a tiger pit, might look unconscious, but he’s awake enough to comment on this, cracking a pretty solid joke about the whole absurd scenario, which causes Ray to abandon Chet and climb out of the pit. Ray continues to abandon people in their time of need later on in the episode, leaving Montana behind while racing off on Trevor’s motorcycle to get help, only to fall victim to one of the two serial killers he’s attempting to escape in a really great kill scene. (Unlike Chen, Ray is definitely dead after that.) DeRon Horton does a great job of selling Ray’s patheticness throughout the confession, and throughout the episode. He’s a coward, but he’s also, occasionally, well meaning. He just has really bad luck.
Ray abandoning his group, and abandoning Chet, isn’t a big surprise. That’s true to his character, but the other turn in the episode, in which Rita reveals that she’s not the real Rita, comes out of nowhere. Brooke and Rita stick together, getting back to Rita’s car in the parking lot. Brooke wants to go get help, Rita opts to stay behind. As Brooke turns to get in the car, she gets a syringe in the neck and Nurse Rita is there to explain it all away.
This melts into a flashback sequence in which ‘Rita’, actually Donna Chambers, walks into the asylum and has a meeting with Karen (Orla Brady) regarding her attempts to reach out to Mr. Jingles. It’s a solidly acted sequence from Ross and John Carroll Lynch (the show’s MVP), as the two bond and Ross reveals her plan. She’s got an agenda—pornography causes serial killers, and Mr. Jingles is the result of PTSD and Vietnam—and given that Ben Richter doesn’t exactly remember his killing spree, perhaps she’s got a point.
James Wong’s funny, twisty digs into Chambers’s grandstanding, and when Richter starts to play into her theories (high fructose corn syrup is creating a rash of spree murderers), it’s easy to see why Chambers was so successful at getting through to people like Ted Bundy. In her quest to understand the killers, she ended up feeding their delusions and giving them convenient excuses for just why they were the way they were. She’s not so much understanding them as she is enabling them, at least based on her interaction with Jingles.
Mary Wigmore tends to play up the comedy in the episode, with a lot of the one-liners and asides given extra weight thanks to the actors’ delivery and the way the scenes are set up, but she also displays some adept timing in the more horrifying moments. The way Chambers sits up in the back seat of the real Nurse Rita’s car is both funny and terrifying at the same time, and the death of Nurse Rita (Dreama Walker, with incredible hair and very expressive eyes) is equally horrifying based on the reaction shot of Trevor (Matthew Morrison), watching from a hiding place.
The reveal of Rita’s corpse is only icing on the horror cake. The various twists, particularly the one I haven’t spoiled, are also very well handled. They seem to come out of nowhere when it’s appropriate to do so, and are shaded heavily when appropriate to do so. Nurse Rita isn’t long for this world once she crosses Donna Chambers. Trevor’s act of heroism leading to the death (or mangling) of an innocent townie idiot is foretold from the very moment the real Mr. Jingles lets him wander off. The deaths of the other two townies come at exactly the right time; mocking the killer in a horror movie never ends well and their punishment is appropriately swift and brutal.
The redshirts die swiftly. The betrayals are brutal. 1984 plays with the tropes and traditions of slasher movies and doesn’t skimp on the staples of the genre, like flying decapitated heads and people being impaled on things. With the nimbleness of a dancer, American Horror Story is able to both satisfy the tropes and play with the tropes simultaneously. Slasher movies, for the right audience, are a lot of fun, and American Horror Story: 1984 is not short on the depraved sense of humor necessary to make a dumb 80’s pastiche work.
Watching fictional characters die is rarely so much fun.