American Horror Story Freak Show episode 3 review: Edward Mordrake (Part 1)

This season of American Horror Story has found the right balance between crazy ideas and their crazy execution...

This review contains spoilers.

4.3 Edward Mordrake (Part 1)

The cops are still sniffing around the camp, Jupiter is under a curfew as Twisty continues his bloody rampage, Meep is dead and buried with a pile of chicken heads to see him through to the great beyond, and once again the camp finds itself dealing with new arrivals. First Bette and Dot, then Dell and Desiree add to the dysfunction, and now Esmerelda the spiritualist (Emma Roberts) is there to liven things up a bit. But Esmerelda is more con artist than spiritualist, and she’s working on a plot with her conspirator Stanley (Denis O’Hare) to enrich themselves by any means necessary. As if that wasn’t enough, the ghost of a long-dead sideshow attraction turned demon is just looking for any excuse to crash the party. Just another normal day in American Horror Story‘s twisted version of the American dream.

I have to give American Horror Story a lot of credit for its knowledge of history. Not just of its freaks, like Chang and Eng and Edward Mordrake, but of its movie conventions. It’s not quite to the standard of Murder House‘s borrowed horror movie element of the week, but Freak Show continues to impress with its inspired moments. For example, when Dandy is preparing his Halloween costume, there’s a great POV shot of a Dandy-eye-view from behind the mask as he stalks through the Mott house to go kill Dora (the great Patti LaBelle). The Halloween effects started early in the episode as the two 50s housewives walk their kids through a daytime trick-or-treating while Twisty hangs out ominously in the background like The Shape. The fact that both characters ape Michael Myers can’t be coincidental (and neither can their duelling clown outfits).

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The introduction of Edward Mordrake is definitely awesome, as he gets his own silent movie-style introduction, complete with the herky-jerky movement effects that came along with the old days of hand-cranked projectors, almost like a nickelodeon effect. It’s great technique from director Michael Uppendahl, and it’s one of the moments where the show’s special effects are accentuated by shooting style (every shot of that little head is astoundingly effective in its cheesy creepiness). Mordrake’s future appearances, accompanied by eerie green fog and killer theremin music, are about as close to classic horror as you can get, and the fact that he’s dressed like a Hammer villain makes it all the more effective.

Wes Bentley is awesome as Edward Mordrake. I absolutely love every segment he’s in, and his interview with Ethel was just a great performance for both actors. We know Kathy Bates and her weird Baltimore accent can handle AHS ham, but Wes Bentley seems particularly skilled, both with his accent and his mannerisms. Mordrake the monster works, but Mordrake the man tortured by the evil voice coming from the back of his head works even better, and Bentley really makes that dichotomy work. Mordrake is evil, but not by choice; indeed, he’s troubled by his choice, and his sympathy towards Ethel is beautiful to behold.

Edward Mordrake (Part 1) continues to build on the world put into place, and it takes the carnie hooey of Ethel’s Mordrake tale and turning it into a real spectre of sad horror. It’s an interesting addition to the show, which so far has been grounded in reality and its horrors. It wouldn’t be AHS without a little supernatural horror, and James Wong’s script brilliantly weaves both Mordrake’s rumours and the reality of life in the freak show deftly. Ethel’s story about how she has been exploiting Jimmy since his birth was heartbreaking, and apparently Mordrake agrees, in spite of the accent. I’m not so sure about Esmerelda the fortune-teller and Stanley the con artist, but I like how Uppendahl filmed Esmerelda’s cold reading and how Wong made her prophecy blend so seamlessly into Mordrake’s appearance in the camp.

As a series, American Horror Story has always played with the lines between supernatural and natural, the historical and the fictional, and Freak Show is proving to be no different in that regard. It’s blended these elements both skillfully and clumsily, but never in a way that didn’t end up being very entertaining in some way. Freak Show is proving to be no different, more along the lines of the lean-and-mean Murder House than the crazier Asylum or the uneven Coven. It appears that American Horror Story‘s crew is finding the right balance between crazy ideas and crazy execution. 

Finger-lobster-claws crossed that this trend continues.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Massacres And Matinees, here.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan thinks that Lana Del Rey is a great choice for a freak show chanteuse to sing. Especially when it’s an anachronism being performed for a two-faced ghost coming to take souls. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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