American Horror Story Freak Show episode 12 review: Show Stoppers

Freak Show's penultimate episode pays impressive visual homage to Tod Browning's classic horror movie, Freaks...

This review contains spoilers.

4.12 Show Stoppers

All season long, American Horror Story has been flirting with something. It took a dozen episodes, but it finally got around to actually putting out after a season-long tease. I’m not talking about a character death or something of that nature, I’m talking about Freaks. Tod Browning’s classic, iconic horror movie is one of the most enduring films of its type in the film canon, and even though it’s in black and white and the sound is odd, it’s one of the most unsettling things ever displayed for the public thanks to one scene. The freaks, betrayed by someone they accepted, get revenge.

The freaks of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities are also out for revenge. They, like director Loni Peristere and writer Jessica Sharzer, have the backdrop of Freaks to draw on, and they use it very effectively. Stanley running through the pouring rain, freaks coming out of nowhere to brandish weapons and approach him menacingly… it’s a wonderful stolen moment from a great film, and there’s just enough of a layer of metatext by having Eve and Paul recount the story of Freaks to Stanley before they show him just how it went down. It works for me, because it instantly reminds me of Freaks and it’s nice to see that replicated with colour photography. It works for the audience at large because, quite frankly, I’m not sure enough people have seen the movie (or just that scene) for it not to still be really creepy. Admittedly, I’m a Freaks fan, and watching it recreated so faithfully was a little thrill, as well as still an effective skin-crawler.

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Effective visuals are one of the things that American Horror Story has delivered season in and season out. Each year, there’s a different look, and every episode finds a way to capitalize on that look. Even in the moments not taken from Freaks, there’s a great deal of visual panache. Jimmy’s lost his hands, so Elsa has contacted her old friend Mossimo (Danny Huston) to come into town and make replacements for the boy she raised like a son. The reconciliation of the two old lovers is shot beautifully, with the shadows of Lange and Huston embracing in the middle of the tent, back-lit by the outside lights streaming through. Later, when the two speak to one another at Jimmy’s bedside, it’s shot with a beautiful 70s fuzziness that’s somewhere between soft focus and blur, adding a touch of fairy tale to the tale.

There’s nothing really fresh about the scenes, but Danny Huston and Jessica Lange have obvious chemistry, and between the beautiful people and the beautiful shooting style, it works better than it has any right to in an episode so filled with splatter and mayhem. It does end up being jarring to go from the 50s to the 30s abruptly to see just what happened to break up Mossimo and his prize creation, but I think the jarring effect was intentional. (Certainly it was intentional to have one of Elsa’s torturers be none other than Hans “Arthur Arden” Gruper himself.)

Further into the episode, we get a glimpse of Chester’s magic show. His make-up effects, pale white face with bright red lips in an impressive magician’s outfit, are a great reminder that he might be the human, but he’s also the dummy in the pairing of him and Margery. She’s the brains; since Jamie Brewer and Neil Patrick Harris work great together, it’s a shame to see the pairing break up so soon, and in such an amusingly bloody way. Again, it’s nothing new, but like Freaks, it’s a solid reference point for horror fans.

This is the penultimate episode of this season of American Horror Story, and as such, it makes a lot of space through a lot of dead characters. As most predicted, Dandy ends up with control of the circus, and Elsa ends up at least starting to make her getaway, having avoided the murderous intentions of the freaks due to her self-serving kindness towards Bette and Dot. Still, the twists and turns along the way, particularly Chester and Twisty, were really entertaining, and there’s no reason to say that the finale next week won’t be as bonkers as all the other finales have been.

A better show would have spent more time with those characters, but that’s not American Horror Story‘s style. Characters come and characters go, even if we don’t want them to, and the show’s focus is rarely as tight as it was in the first season, or as varied as it was in Asylum. So long as the show continues to play to its strengths—guts and ham, gore and soapy performances—it’s going to remain something worth watching on a purely entertainment level.

It doesn’t have to make sense so long as it’s pretty. It doesn’t have to be thought-provoking so long as it’s brain candy.

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Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Magical Thinking, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan was very amused by the fact that Maggie’s death was greeted with shrugs and eye-rolling by the carnies. After all, as Desiree said, she deserved it. Too little too late. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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