a review (and dissection) by the Crow.
SPOILER LEVELS at CRITICAL
Recently, I watched an episode of American Horror Story. I’ve been aware of the series since its inception, and yet have never watched anything — even a trailer — from the series. Therefore, if I miss anything that might be familiar to long-term viewers, please let me know.
The first thing which caught my ear, as I headed in to this episode, was that the series stars Emma Roberts — one of the leads from our long-reigning “Heavyweight Champion” review of The Blackcoat’s Daughter — as one of our plucky lead characters. But it’s not with her that the episode begins. It begins — rather — with a set-up for the character we are supposed to assume is the villain of the series. It’s a rather straightforward scene, but one which feels quite unfinished to me. The villain kills three people in 1970, and we are shown that the killer likes to keep trophies (like so many of them do). In this case, the trophies are ears.
There’s a lot to unpack, here. The first thing that immediately came to mind was Dolph Lundgren’s character of Andrew Scott/GR13 in Universal Soldier . And the more the episode continues, the more the references to his character become apparent. Our Mr Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) is a Vietnam veteran, who grew a penchant for murder and collecting the ears of his victims to construct a necklace. I don’t think the references could be any clearer. However, we should keep in mind that Universal Soldier has little to do with the 80s or the 70s (Scott was killed in 1969 in that movie), and the series will go on to plant itself firmly in the 70s and the 80s with all its other references.
But it’s not just references that tie the series to the 80s. The opening sequence is something out of the newretrowave gallery. It is so unabashedly 80s that it’s hard not to like it. Even the colour palette has a pastel overlay during the early scenes, before the episode settles into a more modern look.
We are introduced to most of the primary cast. We have Xavier (Cody Fern), Montana (Billie Lourd), Ray (DeRon Horton), Chet (Gus Kenworthy), and Brooke (Emma Roberts). They are your typical 80s slasher fodder characters, with Brooke being the final girl of the group.
Again, the series couldn’t make it any clearer, with her being referred to as “the last American virgin” in the very first exchange of meaningful dialogue.
There’s a conversation about the “Night Slasher” — the very real-life murderer Richard Ramirez. There is some innuendo thrown around; and rather quickly, a plan is put together for Xavier, Ray, Chet, and Montana to become camp counsellors over the summer. This is both so that they can avoid the rush for the 1984 Olympics, and so that they can avoid running into the Night Slasher. Brooke backs out of the plan, but the door is left open for her.
Let me talk a little about Ray. While looking up the cast, I found out that his role is displayed as recurring/guest. Consider now, that he’s the only black member of the male cast, and that the episode announces him as part of the core group. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the tropes they’re going for. Whether or not these tropes will be played straight, I have no idea, but the signs are definitely there.
Of course, Brooke runs into a man claiming to be the Night Slasher (Zach Villa), and ends up following the other four to the camp (how convenient). Along the way, Xavier finds threatening messages on his answer phone, and the group meet an expendable character played by Don Swayze, who warns them about Camp Redwood, but is ignored. The scene puts me in mind of a movie I’ve long wanted to review, but haven’t gotten around to. Maybe, some day, I’ll review Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but for now I’ll leave it as a mention. And finally, they run over a hiker (Lou Taylor Pucci) who has obviously escaped an attack in the woods.
Other characters get filled in. We have Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), Nurse Rita (Angelica Ross), Chef Bertie (Tara Karsian), and Trevor (Matthew Morrison). Margaret runs the place, and immediately outs herself as a religious fanatic and an extreme conservative, who is friends with Charles Keating — the fraudster and anti-pornography activist. She’s on a mission to keep children in a pure environment, and is staunchly against anything fun, by the looks of things. We are soon treated to the stereotypical story around a campfire, about the murders which occured fourteen years ago, and it’s clear that the series is setting up the return of Mr Jingles. But it’s here where I want to start breaking things down a little more.
It’s revealed that Margaret is the sole survivor of Mr Jingles’ massacre in 1970. She survived being stabbed, and — somehow — stayed quiet during Mr Jingles’ removal of her ear, despite being conscious. She claims it was a religious near-death experience which gave her the strength to survive, and thereafter return to Camp Redwood to turn the camp into a place that did good things.
Or that’s what she claims, anyway.
It turns out that the hiker is also missing an ear. It’s the same ear Margaret is missing, and the same one taken in the opening scene — his left ear. Nurse Rita reveals herself to be somewhat lax at her job, but I’m not sure if she’d ignore the fact that the man was missing an ear, given that she’s the one who tells the campfire story about Mr Jingles later. This can only mean that the ear was taken after the hiker arrived at Camp Redwood.
And then: it’s revealed that Mr Jingles escaped only three hours prior to the scenes which follow the campfire scene. Which doesn’t add up with the hiker’s ear being missing, or the later scenes of Jingles’ arrival at the Camp. If that sounded a little confusing, it’s because the episode edits the situation in that fashion. It’s something which I felt detracted from the episode quite a bit.
Speaking of other killers, the Night Slasher also arrives following the scene revealing the missing ear, and the episode is heavily hinting that it’s Margaret Booth who’s responsible for the hiker’s eventual death in the final third of the episode. Jingles also kills an orderly at the mental hospital he’s kept at, as well as the expendable character, and we notably do not see him remove any ears. The person who ends up chasing Brooke through the woods does seem to have a limp, but I’d wager Jingles’ limp renders him incapable of prolonged periods of running.
But is this a series which plays matters so straight? I don’t have anything but this episode to go on, but I’d actually be a little disappointed if it turned out Margaret Booth is the one obsessed with ears.
I’d like to also talk a little bit about a few fictional killers who appeared in the 80s. Michael Myers first appeared in 1978, and I’m disregarding him, as I am Roger Dale Stafford, who is not fictional, but is mentioned earlier in the episode. Out of the killers we have left, we have Freddy Kreuger — who doesn’t seem to have any connection to this episode — and Jason Voorhees.
Consider the setting of this show: an almost cursed camp next to a lake, an older woman who has a past mired in death and murder, and a handful of sexually-charged, “immoral” characters surrounding a final girl. This is the perfect setting for Friday the 13th references. Whether or not the series will go any deeper into that sort of area is hard to tell at this point, but I’d prefer it didn’t.
I should probably include the fact that I once lived next to a Crystal Lake. It was nice.
There are some very strange editing choices in the second act which I can’t ignore when scoring this episode. That said, the sequence which intercuts between Brooke escaping her pursuer and the Olympic Flame is quite nicely done. I have very little to say about the composition of the episode otherwise, but it’s a rather well-made one.
All in all, it’s a decent starting point for the series, but it doesn’t really have all that much going for it. I like the visual cues to the 80s, the acting’s fine, and there’s quite a few things going on, but it’s not the kind of episode which actually leaves me wanting to come back.
Of course, I will, but for now, I think it’s best to rate the episode and wait for tomorrow’s follow up.
— Crow out.
THE CROW: 5/10
THE RAVEN: 7/10
Here’s the official poster: