This review contains spoilers.
I absolutely love it when American Horror Story uses film-making style to help tell their story. It’s not a question of the way the characters dress or the way the sets are displayed, but a question of actual technical techniques. A significant portion of Flicker is devoted to the life and times of a very young Countess—long before she was the Countess—as a fresh-faced Italian girl from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn who made her way out to Hollywood to become a star on the silver screen. A chance appearance as a harem girl leads to a meeting that will change young Countess’s life forever as she finds herself wooed by the most famous lover in history, Rudolph Valentino (Finn Wittrock, playing a new role) and his glamorous wife, Natasha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario).
The episode plays quite a bit with shooting style this week, courtesy of director Michael Goi, and the most effective sequences are those that evoke the horror films of the past. While on a train trip to promote The Son Of The Sheik, Valentino runs into German director FW Murnau, who has apparently been stalking him and feasting upon people during the entire trip. Murnau, the visionary behind Nosferatu, is a carrier of the blood-borne virus that grants immortality, and he’s willing to share his gift with Valentino to save him from death at the hands of the talking pictures. What does it mean to die when you can live forever, be forever young, and escape the clutches of the Hollywood studio system?
These scenes are wonderfully, shot in flickering black and white with apertures opening and closing to mark scenes. The black and white photography is beautiful, with the clumsy in-camera special effects to make Murnau appear and disappear like a character in one of his movies. Speaking of his movies, there’s a brilliant recycling of one of the scarier moments of Nosferatu as we see a shadow of a hand close around the throat of Valentino, making the megastar sit up gasping in fear. Counterbalancing all the silent-style work is some awesome use of space and close-ups, particularly during Lowe’s big conversation with Wren. It’s almost like something out of a Sergio Leone film, but with a little more of that 70s technicolor horror thrown in. It’s a great set of counterpoints, and one of the many reasons why this week’s episode is so consistently entertaining.
Once again, Lady Gaga has taken me by surprise. She’s been cold throughout the season, but this episode, where she’s all wide-eyed and gasping with Valentino takes her away from dinner to tango, is really effective. She moves very well, as you’d expect from a pop star dancer, but it’s what she’s doing with her wide, naïve eyes that makes the scene work as effectively as it does. Finn Wittrock and Alexandra Daddario are a great pair of silent movie superstars, and Evan Peters’ James March remains one of the better characters he’s taken on as part of the show, equal parts savage and urbane, a low-class swindler with high-class aspirations, right down to the affected way he speaks and the gaudy nature of his glorious hotel/murder palace. Gaga actually acquits herself well both with March and with Iris, and the look of actual fear on her face when the vault is opened is as good as her look of innocence during the seduction.
The way that this episode’s script from Crystal Liu moves deftly between the dialogue heavy segments with Wren and the Greek Chorus of flappers (including none other than Grace Gummer) filling in some much-needed back-story about just who Valentino and the Lady in Black are. The exposition is handled deftly, explaining without being too obvious about it, and the interactions between March and Countess are practically screwball comedy, if the screwball comedy was littered with nudity and hobo dismemberment. The wit and the dark humour sustains the episode well, balancing the various cast members pretty deftly without taking too much focus away from Lowe’s time in the mental hospital or from Countess Gaga’s awakening and embrace by immortal Hollywood stars (who find themselves imprisoned for almost a hundred years by the vengeful March).
From the first episode to now, this has been a different season of American Horror Story. Yes, it indulges in horror and loves to splatter the red stuff everywhere, like a child with a bowl of spaghetti, but it’s also a whole lot of fun, and a whole lot more consistently entertaining than previous seasons have been. From top to bottom, it’s as though there’s a focus and control that hasn’t been part of AHS since Asylum (or even Murder House).
It’s almost as if there’s some sort of master plan at work, rather than the seat-of-the-pants plotting and execution that seemed to happen over the last few seasons. Some episodes have been better than others, but rarely has the show sustained this level of momentum, quality, and sheer entertainment value. Even seven episodes in, that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, so let’s hope it continues.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Room 33, here.