This review contains spoilers.
2.5 I Am Anne Frank (Part 2)
American Horror Story does not take things easy on its characters or its audience. It’s an ensemble cast in the truest sense of the word. Every possible character is set up as the lead at various points in the show, and one by one the show just keeps knocking them down. One after another, our possible heroes get twisted, cracked and flawed by the events of the show’s narrative, no matter who they are or what they may have done.
Perhaps that’s the point. Human life is a horrible, painful thing, and nobody’s going to get out of this world unscathed no matter how good a person they might be. Bad things happen to good people, both on this show and in the real world (bad things also happen to bad people, especially on this show). Are there any truly good characters, aside from Kit? Lana betrayed a friend’s trust, Grace murdered her family, Arden is obviously a mad scientist Nazi, Sister Jude is on a petty power trip, Sister Eunice is possessed by the Devil, Shelley is incapable of fidelity, and Monsignor Timothy is running a very, very, VERY shady mental institution with no outside supervision.
Longtime Ryan Murphy-collaborator Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does some incredible work this week from a stylistic standpoint. There are multiple brilliant camera movements, especially a gorgeous scene between Monsignor Timothy and Sister Jude in which the camera explores Timothy’s room. There’s clever cutting, in which there’s a montage of patients taking pill after pill after pill. There are multiple stellar homages to classic horror, particularly a Nosferatu wink involving Dr. Arden, some theremin, and multiple uses of Dutch and Raimi camera angles, and what has to be a nod to Freaks involving Shelley. There are nods to more modern horror films as well, particularly Saw‘s kinetic editing and a Natural Born Killers fish-eye lens. Gomez-Rejon even gets to play with the medium itself, jumping between the show’s standard cameras and what looks like 8mm film for some wonderfully-done exposition involving Anne Frank’s life as a housewife. He’s definitely brought his stylistic sense from being a second unit director on Argo.
In a season (series?) that’s seemed a bit light on horror, they more than brought the horror elements tonight. However, it wasn’t just an overwhelming emphasis on terrible things happening, but terrible things interspersed with the build-up of future terrible things to come. There were some very shocking moments on the show this week, and even some things I expected to happen ended up being horrifying because of how they were written, acted, and filmed. One of the most horrifying, to me, was also one of the most subtle. Kudos to co-creator and tonight’s writer Brad Falchuk for his willingness to go there and dig around in some terrible aspects of the past. Even if some of the elements were a bit too on-the-nose, the whole of the show was still really well done. There were some great words for the actors to chew on, and the show’s intricately-connected plots and multiple antagonists were balanced about as well as they possibly could be given an hour a week of time.
Of course, it’s not all style and shrieking, there were also some great performances on display. You can pretty much depend on Jessica Lange and James Cromwell to put in great work, but both really stepped it up in this episode, Lange in particular gets a wonderful monologue and is turning Sister Jude into one of the show’s most interesting, well-rounded characters. As for others, well, Sarah Paulson’s work tonight was jaw-dropping. She gives some of the best fear acting I’ve ever seen, and it’s just so visceral. It’s not just her screaming, it’s the tension that races through her, the shaking, the sweating, the contortion. It’s crushing stuff, and to watch the way she moves and shifts physically to react to her torment is just impressive.
Say what you will about American Horror Story: Asylum, but it’s clearly a show with no shortage of ideas, and, to their credit, they are not afraid to end a plot one way or another when they feel it has served its purpose. They’re also not willing to drag us back to the present when all we really want is the sixties asylum part, and not quite so much Jenna Dewan-Tatum and the modern setting. I’m sure we’ll be going back to that scene soon enough, but they’re not padding it out which I appreciate after watching a season of Dany wandering around Qarth asking about her dragons.
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