A loving couple buy a house that’s too good to be true and spooky stuff starts happening. We’re told their story via a reality horror TV series: My Roanoke Nightmare. I wonder who the ghost is? Pocahauntus?
… I’ll see myself out.
Hmm, this was definitely unexpected.
Shrouded in secrecy, there was a certain level of excitement and intrigue coming into this premiere, as there was absolutely no mention or obvious hints as to what this year’s theme was going to be, or when and where it would take place. The unsettling promotional teasers were unrelated and purposefully misleading, with the show’s subtitle this year being anyone’s guess.
In retrospect, I can see why the
gimmick theme for this year was withheld; past seasons have been touted with clearly defined horror tropes and arcs (witches, vampires, carny folk) with varying degrees of success, but this year, with the introduction of a show within a show — a sort of horror docu-series akin to Most Haunted, victim reenactments and all — I could see that reveal being especially divisive among horror fans. Admittedly, it’s a hard sell, and certainly not the most spine-tingling set-up for a show revered for its deviant lunacy.
But there’s no denying that it was an absolutely audacious move. This is unlike anything the show has tackled before now. Anyone with vertigo will be relieved to know that this premiere takes a completely stripped back approach and bids farewell to the crazy camera filters and overuse of fish-eye lenses. American Horror Story attempts a more restrained, more self-contained adventure (for its premiere, at any rate), which allows the series to take a more traditional approach to storytelling, for better and for worse. And Ryan Murphy has found a brilliant way to utilize his extremely talented cast by having two actors play the same role (one detailing the horrific events, and the other as part of the dramatized reenactment of said horrific events).
Shelby Millar (played by fan fave Lily Rabe) and her hubby Matt (The Knick‘s Andre Holland) star on a reality TV show called My Roanoke Nightmare, and through reenactments (with Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr playing their dramatized counterparts), we quickly learn that these two loved-up hopefuls who are looking to put a recent trauma behind them, have never in their lives watched a frickin’ horror film. Nobody buys a rickety ass mansion in the back arse of nowhere for the price of a packet of Skittles without supernatural repercussions. That’s just Horror 101, people! Realizing there’s something strange in their neighborhood, they phone the next best thing after the Ghostbusters: Angela Basset! Chomping up scenes left and right, Basset’s character Lee is charged with looking after an ever distraught Shelby who, as well as having to deal with the dead tormenting her, must also face a verbal smackdown or two from Basset, because it’s never not a glorious spectacle to behold.
I could literally watch these actors read off ingredient labels and still find it utterly compelling. The caliber of acting on this show is stupidly impressive, and I think that’s why this stab at something fresh hits more than it misses. Unlike last season’s introductory episode, with its cold cast of characters and scattered storytelling, season 6 lets us be with the central characters a little longer than what is the norm for American Horror Story; Angela Basset is never anything less than magnificent, and Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr have fantastic chemistry, with the episode never losing track of that.
Okay okay, I hear ya, this isn’t exactly American Love Story, so what of the horror elements? I found everything to be a little bit…tame? There were no mutant children or dildo demons or aliens or gimp ghosts to be found anywhere! Just a few creaky floorboards, weird screaming and human teeth that rained from the sky. (Ya know, the usual.)
That’s why I can’t fully get behind this episode. In terms of shocks and scares, it felt like a step back for the show. Past seasons have always contained some kind of gross-out, defining moment to ring in the new year of terror, but with season 6, it’s all played rather safe. Apart from one effective jump scare near the end, it’s horror by-the-numbers, which is not exactly something I would have ever accused American Horror Story of producing in the past. When it comes to supernatural home invasions, a lot has changed since the first season’s Murder House, and audiences have come to expect more from this show, and from this particular sub-genre of horror. When you consider the likes of The Conjuring 2, and what that managed to achieve, the events that take place in chapter 1 feel very in line with something you’d expect from a CW horror series.
How they can keep this format engaging for 13 episodes is still up in the air, and apart from the title card of the documentary series lending a hint, I have no idea where this year is heading or what it’s actually about. It’s all a little confusing and underdeveloped. And kinda, sorta… brilliant? I may be of two minds on the format and theme of the show, but I was positively hooked from start to finish. What AHS: My Roanoke Nightmare lacked in the scare department, it more than made up for it with some compelling character work and gorgeous cinematography. It will take an episode or two more to find out if this year’s premise has any legs to stand on or if it’s just a one-gimmick wonder.