American Horror Story Freak Show episode 1 review: Monsters Among Us

American Horror Show returns with a visually gorgeous episode that proves there's no other show like it on television...

This review contains spoilers.

4.1 Monsters Among Us

Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film Freaks is a bonafide classic thanks in no small part to Browning’s brilliant use of “us versus them.” On one side, you have the outwardly terrifying freaks and on the other side the so-called “normal” folks as represented by Cleopatra and Hercules. The freaks look scary, but deep down inside, they’re the good people. They accept Cleopatra because Hans loves her, but when Cleopatra and Hercules betray the trust of the sideshow folks, the freaks protect their own in one of the most terrifying sequences in movie history. Terrifying yes, but also well-deserved in the end, as Cleopatra and Hercules prove themselves to be despicable.

Freaks is a film existing in a genre of one. If you’ve seen it, you know there are no other movies quite like it. However, Freak Show is attempting to be a second entry into that genre. Set two decades after Freaks, the freak show experience is dying a prolonged death, killed by television and changing attitudes towards bearded women and lobster boys. However, Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) is one of the last remaining hold-outs, determined to keep her family of oddities together and profitable by any means necessary. Fortunately, she just found herself a new headlining act. Or, I suppose, a double headlining act in Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson), two-headed conjoined twins who may or may not have killed their mother in a fit of rage.

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Ryan Murphy, as a writer, director, and general creative, is not a subtle person. None of his properties has been subtle, or even pretended to be subtle. Murphy has one instinct, and that’s to be as big as possible, and he really does not hold back in the debut episode of Freak Show. From the murderous cold opening, which ends in a brilliant tracking shot of a body on a gurney being wheeled down a hallway (and a nurse throwing up), to the final reveal of just why Elsa has so much faith in her family of freaks, this is nothing if not a gorgeous visual episode. Murphy plucks from the horror conventions while still finding creative new ways to shoot familiar faces. As Elsa goes to speak to Bette and Dot, there’s a great moment where Murphy uses Jessica Lange’s shadow to track her around their bed, with a great slow pan down the seam of the curtain as Elsa peeks in on her two newest exhibits. It’s brilliantly done, and it’s brilliant that Elsa-as-candy-striper is holding two balloons conjoined roughly at the same place where Bette and Dot are combined.

That’s not the only brilliant moment in the episode. The music feels very Hitchcock, but the shooting style is definitely De Palma. At various points, as the two sisters talk to one another, or talk to others, they’re split-screened. It works beautifully, particularly when both sisters are focused on Elsa, only for Bette’s attention to drift to a magazine whenever Elsa starts talking. It both looks cool and it captures something about the two characters, giving them a little differentiation (the same shooting tricks will be used with those two throughout the episode, possibly because it’s expensive to render two heads on one body, and also because it looks cool). As for the musical number, it’s just phenomenal, top to bottom. A brilliantly crazy piece of television.

I’m concentrating on the Bette/Dot and Elsa plotline because it’s the most fleshed out of the many little story threads dropped here and there around the episode, with the creepy clown thing landing in second place. It’s early in the season, and Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk aren’t wasting too much time positioning pieces. There’s lots of stuff going on, and it seems like most of the major elements have been introduced, but not at the cost of atmosphere. There’s some of the show’s trademark caustic wit on display when Elsa faces off against Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) and her foppish son Dandy (Finn Wittrock), and a great, goofy speech (and hacking session) led by Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) that wins the Siamese twins over to the freak side, but for the most part the show is establishing a mood (crumbling southern Gothic meets PT Barnum nightmare).

As debut episodes go, they don’t get much better than Monsters Among Us. If the first season gave us the unforgettable image of Dylan McDermott crysturbating in the opening episode, then the fourth season has rewarded us with the image of a horde of circus performers brandishing machetes and going to town on the body of a dead police detective. It’s a memorable, chillingly goofy visual in a show built on being everything fun about being scared.

It feels like I say this every season, but man, I am glad that American Horror Story is back and doing its thing. For better or worse, there’s no other show like it on television.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan thinks if this really is Jessica Lange’s American Horror Story swan song, then there’s no better way to go out than “Life On Mars.” Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.