American Horror Story: Asylum Review

Since I was a child I have heavily enjoyed the Horror genre, and all the scares, gore, and genuine thrills that accompany it. Over the years I have distanced myself from the genre because of the lack of good content within the modern era of filmmaking. But rest assured I am always on the look-out for those rare specimens that reach their claws from out of the shadows to truly terrify me, or simply intrigue me. This led to me finding some real Horror gems across the various platforms of entertainment, such as Condemned: Criminal Origins, Outlast, Insidious, and The Purge: Anarchy.

Some of these I have already covered on this site (to which I will happily get round to the others in due time) but today I will be talking about my encounter with television’s greatest work within the Horror genre, i.e. American Horror Story. This is a show I was very much clueless about for quite some time, only really hearing about it during my time at University from a colleague, who said it was really good and twisted, as well as explaining its unique formula of being an anthology series, thus each season presents a different narrative with new twisted ideas and environments.

This idea alone fascinated me because it allowed the show to remain fresh as well as become a unique experience. It never outstays its welcome and each year you get to start from scratch with new characters and stories and in the process re-experience the terrors of creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy. This allowed the series to explore different Horror ideas and not rush them across a short amount of episodes to compensate the rest of the show’s ideas and story-arcs, which would usually run across several seasons following the same characters and a similar format.

The first season, retroactively referred to as American Horror Story: Murder House, dealt with the paranormal as a somewhat innocent family buy a new home which is quickly revealed to be a house of torment (hence the cheapness). This quickly develops a unique structure of travelling across the eras of the house and exploring the damaging consequences of the insidious hauntings and how each occupant was affected, often leading to their deaths or insanity. Also for good measure Falchuk and Murphy threw in a demonic pregnancy, granting you a brilliant piece of entertainment that leaves you gripped from start to finish through the constant dread and desire to learn more (despite your hesitation).

I will of course eventually delve into American Horror Story: Murder House, but since I haven’t watched it in a while I felt it would be unfair reviewing it based on distant memory. For now I will talk about its successor, American Horror Story: Asylum, which I recently watched with my partner. Despite the show being dark, twisted, extremely sexual, bizarre, and completely mental throughout, I was actually surprised that my partner stuck it through and ended-up really enjoying it. Bare in mind she too really likes the Horror genre but she has her limit, especially when Horror films gets too weird or torture based (and the simple fact that she couldn’t get past the first episode of the first season).

To be frank, the real reason that I started watching the show in the first place was because I wanted to do some research before my holiday to Orlando last year, to which me and my partner attended Halloween Horror Nights 26 which had an American Horror Story house featuring elements from Murder House, Freak Show, and Hotel. Although I ordered a Blu-ray boxset featuring the first three seasons I only managed to watch Murder House, and never got round to completing the set until now.

This is because me and my partner will be returning to Orlando this month and will be attending Halloween Horror Nights 27 which features another American Horror Story house, this time holding elements from Asylum, Coven, and Roanoke. So once again I wanted to do my research, as well as peak my curiosity (especially after how impressed I was with Murder House last year).

American Horror Story: Asylum revolves its narrative around the Briarcliff Mental Institution during the 1960s, run by a group of nuns. Of course things aren’t normal and the season does well at playing with the idea of corruption through religion, as well as the benefits of believing in a greater calling which can lead to redemption from past sins. Then there is the corruption demonstrated through backwards beliefs to which can be used to ensnare the innocent, trapping them within the walls of the insane facility to further be silenced from society.

This happens twice through characters Lana Winters and Kit Walker (played by Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters respectively), with the former being incarcerated due to her curiosity as a journalist and her alien love interest in women, whilst the latter is accused of being the notorious serial killer “Bloody Face” as well as being claimed insane due to his supposed encounter with aliens. These two characters act as the main focus and drive for the ongoing narrative, along with the developing dilemmas of Sister Jude Martin (played by Jessica Lange).

Sister Jude Martin is a particularly fascinating character as she starts off as being incredibly dislikeable and insane with her religious nut-job views, and cruel (and often inhumane) treatment of patients, but slowly becomes a character you start to feel sorry for. American Horror Story‘s greatest attribution is its detail to characters and the ramifications of the narrative’s intricate timeline, with each season happily confusing you with constant leaps backwards and forwards through time in order to delve further into important plot and character events that go on to shape the future of the show.

With Sister Jude Martin you come to understand that she has lived a life of regret, ultimately making many mistakes that has cost her everything, including her belief and resolve in life, which is why her position as a nun within the asylum greatly pushes her character forward within development, particularly with redemption. But things begin to turn against her when elements beyond her control act against her and slowly take everything from her once more, to which we see a genuine descent within her character, to the point where her power is completely stripped and she becomes no better off than the inmates she once governed over.

It’s incredibly tragic and shows how corruption and power come hand-in-hand throughout this season to act against the innocent and manipulate events against them so that their happy ending is far beyond reach and their version of truth is completely silenced, replaced with lies that completely work against them as they try desperately to fight against a system that is corrupt to the core.

Then there are the twisted experiments of Dr. Arthur Arden (played by James Cromwell) to which he inhumanely operates on the inmates and transforms them into grotesque monstrosities, which he believes to be the future of humanity. Things get even more complicated when the paranormal returns to plague the show, this time featuring a demonic possession which infests the halls of the asylum, spreading the tormented terrors even further through sadistic manipulation, to which even causes Monsignor Timothy Howard (played by Joseph Fiennes) to have his faith warped in order to satisfy his desire for further power and status within the religious order.

On top of everything else was the progressive story-arc featuring “Bloody Face”, and this proved to be the most surprising revelation within the series, creating some of the best moments throughout. I guess it’s true what they say when it comes to the identity of the insane, it’s always the person you least expect. This statement couldn’t be more accurate upon us finally discovering that the mass woman killer is actually Dr. Oliver Thredson (played by Zachary Quinto), the psychiatrist that showed kindness towards Lana and actually established a sense of progressive thinking, acting beyond the backwards beliefs of the rest of the authority characters.

However, when things seemed safe for Lana, having been rescued by Oliver, something didn’t seem right. And then it hit me, “He’s the killer!” And I was right. He was “Bloody Face”. What a perfect revelation, one that reshaped the season, exploring new and tormenting ways to test Lana’s sanity as Oliver warps from a gentle, caring soul into a full-on monster filled with murderous intent.

His arc becomes quite terrifying and tragic through his motherly neglect as a child, forcing him to become quite deranged in his later years as he craved the gentle touch of a mother’s warmth, ultimately turning him into “Bloody Face”, chasing down women he believed could fill the role of his mother and eventually started removing their flesh and sampling it. Things become even more twisted when he believes Lana is that very person and he develops sexual feelings for her, ultimately impregnating her with another seed of Satan’s will.

This develops a neat connection to the briefly visited events within the present where “Bloody Face” is still performing his sick-twisted acts of violence, but it was at first confusing as to who was under the mask (and how these events connected to the past), making you wonder whether the original killer never got caught, or simply escaped apparent death and stuck around within the walls of the asylum.

It turns out that this very person is Lana’s son, the prodigy of Oliver, who goes on a murderous rampage in search of his mother, who he eventually confronts in order to bring this deadly tale full circle in a rather satisfying conclusion (although I will be honest, despite feeling slightly sorry for Lana’s unnecessary suffering, I didn’t fully like her character due to her selfish desire throughout, to which got her thrown into the line of danger in the first place).

When it came to the possessed Sister Mary Eunice McKee (played by Lily Rabe) I found her character to be deliciously devious in getting what she wanted, to the point where I actually rooted for her throughout most of the season, curious as to what she would do next in her long scheme to further chaos. Her actions eventually broke-down Dr. Arthur Arden who had a soft-spot for Sister Mary’s innocence back before she was tainted by evil, eventually begging for repent that perhaps the demonic creature could see his desire for love and attention but is quickly shot-down, resulting in his gruesome suicide just to be beside his beloved nun once again.

One of the problems my partner found with this season was the forced nature of extra-terrestrial presence which plagued Kit throughout, making us wonder what the hell was actually going on throughout. What happened to his wife? Did he experience an alien abduction? Or was it an excuse for his insanity? Then it’s made perfectly clear that there is some kind of alien presence, creatures with superior intelligence and technology that are mysteriously stalking him and experimenting with those he falls in love with, ultimately resurrecting one of his lovers from the brink of death with a specially crafted child.

I didn’t fully mind this aspect because I’ve come to realise that American Horror Story is strange and you have to just deal with whatever is thrown in your face. But I could see where my partner was coming from as this element of the season messed-up with the tone and realistic nature of the rest of the narrative. Sure, the demonic possession was another element you could question but at least that’s based on events that have happened, to which some possessions have made their mark on history.

Of course towards the end of the season I was left dissatisfied for a time because it became clunky, and disorganised in its trajectory. Having wasted all of its intriguing story-arcs prematurely the final couple of episodes felt like they just came to a stand-still. I was literally left confused as to what the hell was going on and how the show could possibly continue now that there wasn’t anything left to tell, with the narrative taking a strange turn (and not necessarily for the better) in order to drag out the run-time to achieve its 13 episode structure.

It really bummed me out that we had such a fantastic run of stories and ideas, which were building-up to something special, only to have them burnt out far too early, thus leaving the season with nothing else to show for itself except random extension pieces that genuinely felt like filler ideas. Sure, it was interesting seeing the downfall of the asylum after the possessed Sister Mary was dealt with, thus resulting in the facility being given over to the state, resulting in the place being overrun with inmates and the living conditions becoming barbaric, but it wasn’t a satisfying compromise.

Plus, the narrative just became far too weird when it came to Kit’s story-arc to which it just became really unnatural, opposing all the neat Horror imagery presented earlier on within the asylum. Not to mention Sister Jude’s punishment being trapped as an inmate became almost overkill by the end, especially once she lost her memory and slowly got swallowed up by the crumbling decay of the facility she once governed.

However, I will say that this season certainly did well at exceeding my expectation because of all the crazy shit it threw in to change-up what I thought was going to be straight-up Horror merely following the stories of the insane. It ended-up being so much more due the additions of elements I didn’t expect, blending together to create a narrative that was beyond what I originally thought would take place, and because of this Asylum became a terrific experience. Sadly the quality didn’t maintain until the very end.

Luckily the season managed to wrap itself up for the concluding episode and actually managed to redeem itself (especially through establishing some redeeming conclusions to certain characters, granting an uplifting end to what was a terrible ordeal). It’s a shame, however, that the damage was already slightly done and it’s saddening that inconstancy and poor creative decisions fucked-up what could’ve been the perfect successor to Murder House. For this reason I’m inclined to say that so far this is my weakest season in terms of structure. But damn, it was still an enjoyable experience whilst it was at its best.

American Horror Story: Asylum threw so many twisted ideas in our face, and some really grotesque imagery, not to mention the abundance of sex throughout, making you wonder whether the creators and actors actually gave a damn. It really showed in their commitment and how far they were willing to go in order to showcase exactly what they pitched on paper, pushing every single boundary in order to deliver the perfect Horror experience, filled with every necessary thrill, scare, gruesome violence, and unearthly characters that made your skin crawl.

I mean, Christ!, they even had a serial killer that dressed up as Santa Clause (played by Ian McShane) and went around punishing people because he hated Christmas, ultimately murdering innocent people he believed were naughty (becoming a twisted anti-Clause), as well as biting guard’s faces off, attempting to rape and murder Sister Jude, before finally making everyone believe he had repented, even purifying himself in Holy Water, before crucifying Monsignor Timothy. Basically, the show got really fucking dark!

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