Review: American Horror Story Freak Show “Monsters Among Us”

Last night’s American Horror Story marked the beginning of the fourth season and of the Freak Show plot. It’s 1952, and we’re in Jupiter, Florida. W’re  introduced to most of the major characters of the season–circus freaks, a killer clown, and Jessica Lange’s fantastically over-the-top Elsa, a German ex-pat who runs one of the last freak shows. (Friendly Warning: While I’ve tried not to spoil too much, this review does contain some spoilers. Proceed with caution.)

“Monsters Among Us” is an apt title for the installment, as the dynamics between the townspeople of small, sleepy Jupiter and the members of the freak show. As is sometimes hammered in a little casttoo thickly, there is a real question as to who the monsters are, whether its those who stand on display in the freak show or those who live in Jupiter. But then again, there are times when the monster is perfectly clear. In one of the strangest, most uncomfortable scenes in the show, a candy striper who Elsa has brought to the show is made to watch a film of herself “enjoying” being drugged and molested while Elsa declares that her monsters are “the beautiful, heroic ones.” We’re literally watching them commit rape, though, and we see them mutilate a corpse later. One wonders how Elsa defines heroism.

That clownTwisty (John Carroll Lynch) is undoubtedly the show’s most horrifying monster at the moment, though. Twisty is the scariest clown I’ve seen since Pennywise. From the odd patches and stitches on the back of his head to his strange, large mouth and dingy outfit, Twisty’s appearance is calculated to unnerve. He interrupts a canoodling couple when we first see him, and we watch him club and stab the boyfriend before abducting the girlfriend; later, we see him kill again and abduct a young boy. He stashes his victims in his trailer, where he seems bent on psychological torture before fulfilling whatever purpose he has for them. We haven’t yet seen how Twisty’s story connects to the freak show, but we have seen him riding the carousel there alone and watching the freak show members in the woods.

Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in dual roles) are blamed for some of the crimes Twisty has committed, though. They are conjoined twins, hidden by their mother until the more impetuous Bette murders the mother and a stricken Dot attempts to kill her sister by stabbing her in the betteanddotheart. It’s clear that the girls killed their mother, so the supposition is that she was the beginning of a killing spree. But Elsa saves Bette and Dot from the hospital where they are treated for the stab wound, bringing them to the freak show in hopes that they’ll be her new headliner. The two have very different personalities, and Dot is forlorn about their move to the freak show, while Bette is happy to be there.

Jimmy (Evan Peters), the Lobster Boy, is tasked with trying to keep Bette and Dot there, to convince them to be headliners. Peters finally gets to do more than grunt, an unfortunate part of his playing Kyle in the Coven story-line, and it’s worth it. He’s a smooth-talking greaser who pleasures bored housewives to earn money on the side, and his discontent with the show and with ethelElsa shows. He’s particularly compelling when talking to his mother, Ethel, the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates, whose accent is inexplicable) about her fascination with Elsa and the show and his desire to get out.

In perhaps the most pivotal moment of this week’s episode, a policeman visits the freak show and attempts to arrest Bette and Dot. Rather than let them be arrested and taken away, Jimmy whistles and is suddenly accompanied by many of the other show members. When the officer calls them “freaks,” Jimmy murders him. Uh-Oh. There’s that whole “who is the monster” thing again, especially as we later see the group collectively mutilate and get rid of the body—all while Twisty looks on.

And somewhere in all of that chaos there is a performance for two lone audience members, mother Gloria (Frances Conroy) and son Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). They’re wealthy, clearly, and there’s life on marsobviously a strange mother-son dynamic going on there. The show must go on, though, even with only 2 audience members, and in an oddly fitting but incredibly anachronistic moment, Jessica Lange belts out “Life On Mars,” David Bowie’s 1973 ballad, while the performers move around her. At episode’s end, we uncover Elsa’s not-so-hidden agenda for bringing Bette and Dot to the show—so that she can get noticed and become a star. We also get the slightly-more-novel revelation that she has no legs.

Grade: A. It’s a good beginning, and though it was a longer than normal episode that had a lot of exposition and introduction, the episode was well-paced.

Next week, it looks like we’ll see Angela Basset’s three-breasted lady and Emma Roberts’s fortune teller characters.

The Thursday Thirteen: Horror Films

Gene’O and I have switched off for the day—he’s writing about Tolkien in a special Thursday Thirteen at the Monster, and I’m writing here. As I sat here prepping for my comprehensive exams this weekend (and by prepping, I mean trying not to hyperventilate and eating Halloween Oreos), I thought to myself (prompted by said Oreos) “oh, it’s October, and this little monster hasn’t talked about horror films yet.” So that’s what I’m going to do today.

I’ve mentioned before that I like gory TV shows and all-things-zombie. And, naturally, I have an affinity for all manner of creatures and monsters. I also don’t mind being scared, especially if I can be scared in my own home, and especially if it’s October, which Sam and I have officially designated as a month of horror films. Below, I give you some of my personal favorites for the month.

1. Insidious, 2010.

I love haunted house stories, and I’ve watched this one with more, not less, horror each time I’ve seen it. The film maintains an excellent balance of newer film techniques with tried-and-true horror film staples. Plus, this creature that a friend and I isolated in the trailer still freaks me out, almost 5 years later.

Yeah, that thing. Night. Mare.

Yeah, that thing. Night. Mare.

2. 28 Days Later, 2002.

Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic world of contagion is fantastic. It does what the best horror movies do in that it provides us with a scapegoat to be afraid of (the virus, and those fast zombies) and then reminds us that what we should really be afraid of is humanity.

3. The Exorcist, 1973.

I was in college when I watched this for the first time, and I was absolutely frightened by it. The feeling lingered for a while, a few hours after the film was over. The re-watches don’t scare me as much, but it’s still a chilling film—superbly scripted and acted, with that spider-walk on the stairs still being one of the creepiest things I’ve seen on film.

4. Let the Right One In, 2008.

I’ve seen both this original, Swedish version and the American remake, Let Me In. And it was honestly a little difficult to decide which version to choose for the list. Each version is an adaptation of a vampire novel, and each has its own merits. The Swedish version ultimately topped out for me because of its careful timing and fantastic use of long, slow shorts and sparse dialogue to create tension.

5. The Cabin in the Woods, 2012.

This film surprised me, it really did. But then again, with Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard at its helm and Kristen Connolly as its heroine, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprised at the heady mix of cheekiness and gore. Not content just to subvert our expectations of the genre—it twists and rearranges them.

6. The Shining, 1980.

Jack Torrence is one of the scariest characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch on-screen, but at least 7/10’s of that is due to the performances put in by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Long. I’ve been watching this film since I was probably-too-young-to-watch-it, and I’m pretty sure that those twins in the hallway are the origin of my fear of kids-in-horror-movies.

Thosetwins

Those twins. Those. Twins. *shudder*

7. Zombieland, 2009.

A zombie film with Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Jesse Eisenberg? And they run into Bill Murray, you say? Sign me up. The film manages to be, at its heart, a zombie film, and while the characters are fun in a way that they rarely are during the zombie apocalypse, there are moments of tension, fear, and pop culture critique.

8. The Conjuring, 2013.

Another recent film, The Conjuring tells the story of the Warrens, American paranormal investigators, as they conduct an investigation and exorcism at the Perron family home. Using old-school scare tactics and striking cinematography, the new film manages a refreshing, cerebral take on the horror tropes of the investigator and the haunted house.

9. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962.

Fantastically creepy, the aging sisters of Baby Jane are a stark reminder of the jealousy and animosity that can sit beside us, of the things we hide from ourselves and those closest to us. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are fantastic mirrors for one another.

10. Halloween, 1978.

Difficult to make a horror film list, especially in October, without mentioning this one. Mike Meyers has haunted our dreams for 36 years now, and he shows no signs of stopping. From the moment he stabs his sister to the film’s final act, Meyers is terrifying and mesmerizing.

meyers

Yikes!

11. Frailty, 2001.

Matthew McConaughey walks into a police station and claims to know who the God’s Hand Killer is, a terrifying serial killer who is revealed, through flashbacks, to be McConaughey’s father (Bill Paxton, in his directorial debut), an ultra-religious man who wakes up his two sons one night to instruct them on how to dispatch demons. The film is twisty-turny, and it’s a woefully underrated piece of suspense horror.

12. Psycho, 1960.

The king of horror films, Psycho still manages to be scary, over 50 years after its release. Norman Bates is a character of horrifying beauty.

13. Alyce Kills, 2011.

This is a new one for me, as I watched it for the first time last week. It has a bit of a sagging middle, but the opening act and the final act are fantastic. It’s plenty gory, though most of the gore is contained in the last 20 minutes of the film, and it’s also darkly funny and painful to watch Alyce, whose friends have missed all signs that she’s a budding psychopath, come completely unglued because of her guilt over a friend’s accidental death.

Alyce

Let me know what would make your list, and hop over to Part Time Monster and see Gene’O’s Thursday Thirteen over there!