This review contains spoilers.
One of the things I watch more than I should probably admit is ghost shows. If it’s a show where a bunch of clods with a camera go stomping around a dark house at night, I’m on board. If it’s a show where people tell their real ghost experiences with reenactors and spooky sounds, then I’m even more excited about my experience. I watch those things by the dozen; it’s pretty much all I watch when I’m not watching something for work or indulging in a movie.
So, from the first appearance of the graphic for My Roanoke Nightmare showed up, I had a huge, dumb grin on my face that didn’t go away. Whenever it started to fade, American Horror Story would throw in something to appease me, like a warning that the show is based off of true events or an advisory about graphic content. Just like a real ghost reenactment show, every time we cut to commercial, there was an awesome music stinger and a cool animated graphic to announce the return/departure of My Roanoke Nightmare.
One of the brilliant things about the first chapter in the Roanoke saga is that it’s obvious that screenwriters and show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have watched a whole lot of the same crap I have, because they nail the format perfectly. We open with a talking head of Shelby and Matt, a loving couple who leave Los Angeles after a violent incident for the pine forests of North Carolina. It’s practically fate; the couple stumble across a beautiful old farm house with ten acres of forest around it, buy it for cheap at an auction after besting local redneck roustabouts the Polk family, and immediately start their new life in beautiful isolation. Beautiful, possibly haunted isolation.
American Horror Story seems to be sticking to the formula, because we get both Shelby, Matt, and Matt’s sister Lee in talking head form, and in reenactor form. Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe share the Shelby role, with Paulson doing the reenacting and Rabe doing the talking heads. Ditto Matt, who is split between a svelte-looking Cuba Gooding (reenacting) and Andre Holland. Lee is handled by Angela Bassett (reenacting) and Adina Porter. It’s great, because there’s just enough resemblance between the various actors that you can reasonably believe that these people were cast to play their real-life counterparts, akin to the average TV reenactment program—which means that they’re only vaguely similar in terms of ethnicity and hair colour, but not age or appearance.
Murphy and Falchuk’s script does a good job of handling both the reenactments and the talking head segments, and in the hands of Bradley Buecker, it looks the part as well. The talking heads are boring backdrop shots—with some great work from Lily Rabe in some emotional scenes—and the reenactments look and feel like reenactments, albeit with a higher budget than the average made-for-cable time-filler. The faux graphic is spot-on, right down to it being slightly goofy and yet ominous at the same time, and the subtle use of music to heighten the reenactments is the perfect sort of cheesy that you would expect from this kind of programme in the real world.
One thing that is a little different about this season is that it feels slower. Rather than throwing us straight into craziness, akin to last season’s dildo rape, this season starts slower and has put much more emphasis on atmosphere than craziness. Sure, there’s still a horrifying Ring-style video and a skinned pig corpse left on the doorstep, as well as a surprise Kathy Bates, but given the traditional standards of an American Horror Story season debut, it’s comparatively tame, but there’s just something about watching Sarah Paulson wander around a big deserted house, or the image on Will’s phone of torch-bearing hillbillies stalking up the driveway, or the Blair Witch-style wooden figures suspended on twine from the central staircase that just raises goosebumps. It’s subtle, by Ryan Murphy standards, and it really works given the framing device.
Of course, it’s not all subtle. There’s still a scalped hillbilly and an undulating patch of disturbing earth, just in case you might be worried that the show has lost its teeth. It hasn’t, it’s just going for a different type of horror, smaller, more about the black spaces than what writhes just out of view. For now, at least.
For the moment, the mystery is tantalizing. Much like the show kept the world in the dark about the show’s theme with some wonderfully disturbing trailers, for the moment we don’t know just what’s going on quite yet with the old mansion in the woods. Sometimes not knowing is better. Or sometimes, what we don’t know can kill us.