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Review #3091: American Horror Story 1.4: “Halloween: Part I”

Posted on the 28 October 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Gregg Wright

I’d heard about this two-part Halloween episode well before “American Horror Story” had even premiered. And given the type of show that this is appeared to be at the time, it didn’t surprise me at all to hear about it. But at the time, I knew very little about what the show would actually be like. For most shows, the Halloween episode is a chance to break from the norm a little bit to have some fun with the holiday. With most shows the results are typically more gimmicky than impressive. But then, of course, you have your Joss Whedon Halloween episodes, which are known for being unusually good. Another notable exception that comes to mind is “The Curse of Frank Black”, from season 2 of Chris Carter’s “Millennium” (with which this episode of “American Horror Story” shares a writer: James Wong).

Review #3091: American Horror Story 1.4: “Halloween: Part I”

So I was curious to see just what “American Horror Story” had in store for me. I can’t decide whether to be surprised or not, but the first installment of the two-parter is completely unlike typical Halloween episodes, and is very much a continuation of the show’s unfolding saga. And if you ask me, this was exactly the right approach. The fact that this all occurs on Halloween night is simply an additional reason for existing conflicts to escalate. The Halloween elements are smartly integrated without becoming an unneeded distraction from the actual plot.

James Wong has had a significant amount of experience with this genre, much of which I consider myself to be a fan of. My current opinion is that this episode is a bit of a refinement of everything about the show that’s been working so far, and may even be the best episode yet. But it bears mentioning that it wasn’t until after I’d seen the episode and formed an opinion of it that I discovered that this was Wong’s first episode of the show. The involvement of James Wong was one of the reasons I’d anticipated the show to begin with, but I’d since almost completely forgotten about this aspect of the show. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Wong’s next episode, whenever that might be.

It’s a bit impressive to think that this is only the first part of a two-parter. It feels like each new episode of “American Horror Story” has “upped the ante” in some way, and now it’s hard to imagine how the second part could be anything but a letdown after this. Things have reached a boiling point on just about every level. First of all, Halloween night seems to result in the dead being able to walk more freely, which primarily results in the gay couple who previously owned the house to show up and be mistaken for the “fluffers” hired to prepare the house for Halloween, as part of an effort to improve its image and increase its resale value. As you might expect, craziness ensues.

It might just be the recent news about Zachary Quinto skewing my perspective, but I thought he was in rare form here. I’d heard about his being cast in this role before the news about his coming out, and even then I thought it was perfect casting. In some respects, the character he plays here is a bit of an over-the-top stereotype, which isn’t too surprising, given the show’s penchant for putting its own spin on existing stereotypes, tropes, and conventions. But Quinto so enthusiastically embraces the character, seemingly in on the joke himself, that it doesn’t seem to matter.

Additionally, there’s the ever-present distrust and general marital strife between Ben and Vivien, which is sure to get a whole lot worse once Vivien bumps into Hayden. I think we all knew Hayden was going to show up as a ghost eventually, so it was all a matter of distracting us and figuring out the best moment for that reveal, and that’s something I think the episode pulled off perfectly. Hayden’s return was hinted at during the confrontation between Ben and Vivien with the phone call, but so much insanity occurs between then and the final seconds of the episode that she was no longer on my mind by that point, making the reveal a perfectly-timed climax to the flurry of activity preceding it. I love that Ben simply shuts the door, as if her re-appearance doesn’t come as much of a surprise to him.

By far, I’d have to say that my favorite moment of the episode was the part where the ultrasound technician abruptly faints after seeing whatever it is that’s in Vivien’s stomach. I suppose I liked it so much because I tend to love horror movies/shows that know how to utilize the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps, knowing that sometimes what your subconscious can come up with is much more frightening than anything the special effects artists can visually render. I still think that, overall, “American Horror Story” struggles to be genuinely frightening. But this episode came closer to achieving that goal than any of the previous ones. This was also evident in the Rubberman appearances. The scenes with Rubberman have generally been a highlight of the show, so I was glad to see him so well-utilized here.

My current theory (which may not be that original or insightful) is that Tate is some sort of demon who’s been in the Rubberman suit all along, and is much older than he appears in his current human form (which would mean that the child in Vivien’s stomach is actually Tate’s). In fact, that’s probably him again at the end of the episode, picking up Violet for the date he’d promised her earlier. It is Halloween night, after all, so it would make sense for him to be in his costume. Even if Tate isn’t a demon, his attempt to engender sympathy from Ben is probably completely hollow manipulation. But is this just because of his interest in Violet? Or is it something far more sinister?

I’ve often criticized the show for failing to cause me to invest any emotion in the characters, and that’s still a problem. But this episode offered a surprising amount of emotion in the place I least expected it to. Jessica Lange has been exceptionally good in this role so far, and Jamie Brewer has brought a lot of believability to her unusual role. But until now, I’ve seen the characters more as just another part of the concoction than actual, full-fledged characters. But this episode was a whole other story. We get a better look at Constance and Addy’s strained relationship, which isn’t nearly as simple as it first appeared to be.

Constance and Addy both appear much more sympathetic now that they’re being treated more as complex human beings and not simply used to add to the creepy atmosphere of the show. Lange and Brewer seem to have a natural chemistry here, making their scenes together some of the strongest of the episode, and of the show so far. And these character-building scenes were absolutely integral in setting up Addy’s death scene and Constance’s grief-stricken reaction.

Constance’s desperate attempt to drag Addy onto the Harmon’s property in order to “save” her makes perfect sense. It’s pretty clear now that anyone who dies on that property becomes a ghost, and can’t move on to wherever it is that dead people go (presumably until their remains are relocated and/or properly buried). It’s a shame to see Addy go, just as I was just beginning to like her. But it did result in the most emotionally affecting scene of the show so far, so I see it as a good thing overall. And there’s always the slight chance that Addy might return as a ghost, though that seems pretty unlikely, given that Constance doesn’t appear to have succeeded in getting Addy to the Harmon’s lawn in time.

I still can’t quite bring myself to think of “American Horror Story” as being a particularly scary or emotionally involving experience, though there are definitely a number of stand-out moments that possess these qualities to a certain degree (more so in this episode than any before). What the show does seem to excel at is in continuing to suck me in and engross me in its ongoing mystery and the general craziness of it all. This episode seems to have played to the show’s strengths a bit better than previous episodes, toning down the overt references to everything else in the horror genre and emphasizing the elements that make “American Horror Story” unique.

Rating: 8/10

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