On paper, American Horror Stories should be the perfect spin-off series – its weekly anthology format of self-contained episodes should curtail the OTT excesses of its veteran parent show, American Horror Story, which tends to set up a brilliant premise, tone and collection of intriguing characters before veering off into an incoherent, implausible and logic-defying mess.
However, rather than offering an exciting new idea (the lifeblood of these Black Mirror types of show), the two part premiere episode, ‘Rubber(wo)Man’, opts to revisit the location of 2011’s first season: American Horror Story: Murder House – a chapter that already felt exhausted after it was explored (again) via Jessica Lange’s monologue-heavy sojourn in 2018’s Apocalypse.
Tonally, it feels like a dispiritingly YA take on American Horror Story or a bad cover version that would wash up on The CW Network alongside Riverdale re-runs. Sixteen-year-old Scarlett (played by Sierra McCormick) and her house-flipping fathers Michael (AHS regular Matt Bomer) and Troy (Gavin Creel) move into the famous Murder House – described as “Amityville Horror on crystal meth” in the show’s trailer – with hopes of turning it into a B&B. As soon as Scarlett tries on serial killer Tate Langdon’s rubber S&M suit, her nascent, violent pornography-fuelled urges awaken, and a cruel live-streamed prank from her crush Maya (Paris Jackson) sends her into a stab-happy tailspin. From there on, American Horror Stories dissolves into a predictable, badly-written jumble of ghosts chasing ghosts, with nothing original to say, that’s bloated even after two episodes, while even Murphy’s quippy dialogue comes off as hackneyed (“You want to get blitzed on Xanax and edibles and watch The Crown?”).
It’s a low bar to clear, but episode three, ‘Drive In’ (by Dexter showrunner Manny Coto) – concerning the revival of a cult horror film called Rabbit Rabbit that was banned after a 1986 screening where the audience started attacking each other – fares better because it’s stand-alone and not in the mocking shadow of its superior mothership series. All the teenage characters, seeking to use the video nasty to get laid, speak in ‘90s Scream-style film literate discussions about the gimmicks of horror director William Castle et al, and there’s a cute nod to Tipper Gore’s ’80s censorship campaign. That said, it turns into a straightforward zombie escape film with a clunky script. At times, it feels like somebody has yelled “exposition!” five times in the mirror as a character pops up to deathlessly regale the plot at you.
For a franchise lauded for giving meaty parts to older, sometimes sidelined actresses, it’s a shame that Adrienne Barbeau is wasted in the thankless role of the screen projectionist, while the disparity in quality between American Horror Story and Stories is highlighted by Murphyverse stalwart John Caroll Lynch (who has previously done fine work as villains Twisty The Clown and Mr Jingles, and unlike the teen stars here, is capable of elevating bad material) as Rabbit Rabbit’s director Larry Bitterman who is given a long soliloquy explaining his evil misdeeds that would be worthy of a fairground janitor in Scooby Doo. You double-take when he doesn’t add: “And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!” at the end. By their nature, anthology shows can be a mixed bag, but after three weary episodes, American Horror Stories is dead on arrival.
‘American Horror Stories’ is streaming now on Disney+