‘American Horror Story: 1984’ episode one: a love letter to ’80s horror that puts the ‘camp’ in summer camp

Don your legwarmers! We're back to the '80s for a recap of episode one 'Camp Redwood'

Putting the ‘camp’ into summer camp, American Horror Story has returned for its ninth season with 1984: a knowing, love letter to the decade’s slasher flicks. Strap in for sex, gore and spandex as we recap the first nostalgia-fuelled episode.

It’s a radical cast change and break from the past for the anthology

With series mainstay Evan Peters sitting this instalment out, AHS: 1984 marks the first season were the premiere contains none of the original actors from series one, Murder House. In fact, none of the usual marquee names  – Jessica Lange (who exited after 2014’s Freak Show, before returning for an Emmy-nominated guest turn in  last year’s Infinity War-esque Apocalypse), Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Frances Conroy – appear, leaving some of the younger regulars to step up and take centre stage. Even AHS doyenne Sarah Paulson – busy filming creator Ryan Murphy’s Netflix One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest origin story Ratched – has a so-far-unknown reduced role.

Playing against type, Emma Roberts (known for machete-mouthed bitches like Madison Montgomery from Coven) assumes the lead as Brooke Thompson, the seemingly strait-laced archetypal ‘final girl’. Billie Lourd is sassy wannabe aerobics-champ Montana Duke who looks like she’s stepped off the set of Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan, while Cody Fern – who impressed last year as the spawn of Satan – dons a crop top as fitness instructor/actor Xavier Plympton. Leslie Grossman is Margaret Booth, the Bible-bashing survivor of 1970’s “worst summer camp massacre” who decides to buy and re-open Camp Redwood, in order to “take all of my darkest memories and turn them into something bright and happy”.

Newcomers to the series include the first acting credit for actual Olympic medal-holder Gus Kenworthy, who has the tongue-in-cheek role of jock Chet Clancy, disgruntled at being kicked off Team USA for “peeing out a pharmacy”, and wanders around half-naked resembling what the offspring of a protein shake and a steroid pill having sex would look like.

Ryan Murphy-verse veterans Matthew Morrison (Glee’s Mr Schue) and Angelica Ross (Pose) join the franchise. The former plays well-endowed camp activities manager Trevor Kirchner who was edited out of a Jane Fonda workout video because his colossal cock was “flopping around like a baby elephant’s trunk”, while the latter quietly impresses as camp nurse Rita Chambers. At the moment, the characters feel more like standard tropes (‘the virgin’, ‘the athlete’, the so-called ‘promiscuous one’), but that’s fine because…

 

It’s an ode to ‘80s slasher films

From the  Friday the 13th /Sleepaway Camp lakeside summer camp setting to a Halloween-referencing escape of the serial killer (Mr Jingles) from a sanatorium, it’s crammed full of homages to video nasties of the era.

The rote plot could have been written by AI: in 1970, nine people are murdered at Camp Redwood by Mr Jingles (John Carroll Lynch), a Vietnam Vet with penchant for collecting his victims’ ears as trophies (You gotta have a gimmick!). Fast forward 14 years to the titular 1984, and – albeit missing one lug-hole – survivor Margaret has decided to re-open the camp, presumably thanking her lucky stars that Google and Trip Adviser haven’t been invented.

Xavier secures a summer job there and invites his friends: Chet (happy to escape LA because the Olympics are about to be held there), Montana and Ray (DeRon Horton – whose guest-star status suggests his tenure is going to be shorter than Gus Kenworthy’s IMBD.com credits) to join him. Brooke – who meets the gang at an aerobics class – is initially reluctant, until she’s attacked by the real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker (Zach Villa, reprising his role from AHS: Hotel) in her house, escaping by fending him off with a frying pan. Naturally, he pledges to hunt her down and finish the job.

Driving there, the gang run over a hiker I Know What You Did Last Summer style with their van. And the pleasing clichés abound: a local gas station attendant (played by Don Swayze, Patrick’s younger brother) warns them to turn around. Xavier phones his answer machine to discover a Black Christmas warning from a gruff, menacing voice: “You can’t just take your dick and run away. There’s nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.” There’s the death-after-sex trope, dead bodies going awol and everybody insisting the only person who witnessed them was “tripping”, and one of those more-falling-over-than-running chase sequences (which is ingeniously inter-cut with footage from the 1984 Olympics) involving Brooke being hunted through the woods by Mr Jingles.

Then, right at the end, despite being told the lines are down, the payphone starts ringing as Brooke answers – cue a reveal that there are two serial killers in the camp, setting us up nicely for a Freddy vs. Jason Mr Jingles/Night Stalker battle royale.

 

It’s authentically ‘80s

This season is so camp and painfully ‘80s, it makes Glow look like Ingmar Bergman by comparison. From the synthy title sequence featuring footage of retro fitness videos and Ronald Reagan, to its John Carpenter-leaning soundtrack to the cinematography which boasts multiple jittery tracking shots, it evokes the atmosphere of a flickering, well-worn ‘80s VHS. There’s references to the era galore: Montana tells Brooke she has a “rad body…like the girl from Cheers” (Shelley Long), while Margaret says she campaigned alongside Charles Keating, the moral crusader on the losing side of The People Versus Larry Flint. And an enjoyable Easter Egg is that the gym in which we’re introduced to the characters via a hip-thrusting workout is called Perfect Aerobics – referencing the 1985  curio aerobics film, Perfect, starring the original Scream Queen  Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s Pumping Irony! Upcoming decade-centric episode titles meanwhile include ‘Slashdance’ and ‘Red Dawn’.

 

There are connections to the wider American Horror Story mythos

This season initially appears more stripped-down and standalone compared to last year’s fankwank Apocalypse which saw the regulars reprise their “greatest hits” characters (Portraying four different protagonists, Evan Peters, for example, played everything bar the title sequence).

 But there are connections to the wider mythos. A ghost version of Richard Ramirez was last glimpsed  attending a dinner party held by James March in season five’s Hotel Cortez alongside fellow serial killers Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Zodiac Killer – like some kind of nightmarish Come Dine With Me. A notorious real-life serial killer, he was active in Los Angeles and San Francisco between April 1984 and August 1985, and was convicted of thirteen counts of murder in 1989.  Meanwhile, nurse Rita mentions that she works at Hawthorne Hospital – a nod to Apocalypse, which featured The Hawthorne School For Exceptional Young Men, an underground outpost for warlocks.

 

Fan theories suggest first appearances may be deceptive

As fun as episode one is, there are concerns that the pastiche-premise may not stretch to ten full episodes, which has prompted fan speculation that the show hasn’t fully shown its hand and there may be a Roanoke-style twist. The George Orwell/reality-TV implying  title has hinted to some that this could be a game show along the lines of Cabin In The Woods/My Little Eye – a theory further bolstered by a ‘Survivors Sweepstakes’ promo. Certainly, it feels like we’re watching a horror tape. Other ideas that have been mooted include that the campmates are actually in a Black Mirror-like virtual reality simulation.

The music is suitably Now! That’s What I Call The ‘80s

Naturally, it boasts an era-specific soundtrack: Frank Stallone’s cheesy ‘Far From Over’ (from 1983 film Staying Alive), Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ (omnipresent in 1984 thanks to its inclusion in The Karate Kid), Rockwell’s on-the-nose ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’, Def Leppard’s ‘Photograph’ and Hall and Oates ‘Private Eyes’.

 

It’s set to be hornier than a Love Island contestant test-driving Viagra

Ryan Murphy once posted a fan theory on Instagram that every season of AHS is connected to Dante’s Inferno and its nine circles of hell – Limbo (Murder House), Gluttony (Hotel), Greed (Freak Show), Anger (Roanoke) Heresy (Cult), Fraud (Asylum) and Treachery (Coven). Only ‘Lust’ and ‘Violence’ remain, which means it’s safe to assume that the former is 1984’s (loose) connection. Sex is a massive part of the exploitation genre, and the sign-posts in episode one are there: it starts with a botched threesome, Glee’s Mr Schue is packing a prosthetic penis, and celibacy-enforcing Margaret is warning of the gender-segregated cabins: “Girls are red, boys are blue. Don’t even try to make purple….I’m not banning self-abuse, though every stroke soils your soul”.

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Other observations

After last year’s triumphant-yet-sprawling Apocalypse, it’s probably best that AHS went back-to-basics. For a series that originally set out to reference and subvert the tropes of horror, it was starting to develop its predicable own: every season, Sarah Paulson would star as twelve different characters, Jessica Lange would deliver a long bourbon-drenched monologue while drawing wistfully on a cigarette, Kathy Bates would attempt a baffling accent and there would be a gratuitous shot of Evan Peters’ #LegDay buttocks. And a show that kick-started the trend for horror being taken seriously again by critics has began to look less original in light of a cinematic horror golden age, and could do with a refresh.

Yet for a show that was once lauded as a safe haven for underused older actors and praised for re-introducing them to a new generation in gif-able form  (Rebecca De Mornay was probably waiting by her phone, poised to be cast as a sinister eye-patch wearing nanny with a penchant for @More_Milf quotes), there’s a change of pace provided by the fact that the mainly-millennial cast skews younger, which makes it tonally closer to Scream Queens – Ryan Murphy’s short-lived campus comedy/horror slasher (which starred both Emma Roberts and Billie Lourd, as well as Jamie Lee Curtis) than traditional American Horror Story. And for a series that’s used to tackling meaty issues (Asylum and Freak Show), the slender narrative, which so far relies heavily on “Spot the reference!” for enjoyment, means there has to be something more lurking underneath.

But this is American Horror Story – which sometimes has a tendency to veer completely off the rails – so frankly, anything could happen. Jessica Lange could turn up as a Pamela Voorhees mother-of-the-serial killer. Eighty-six year old AHS vet Joan Collins could rock up as Chet’s same-age, fellow 20-something girlfriend with nobody batting an eyelid or commenting that when she read Shakespeare in school, it was just the comment he wrote in her yearbook. Hell, it could all be an elaborate Scare Maze. But for now at least, there’s enough here to intrigue and – with a cast playing it with enough infectious gusto – to suggest we’re in for a ride.

American Horror Story airs on FX, Thursdays, 9pm