The first season of American Horror Story was a surprise hit, as many at first questioned whether a non-premium cable channel like FX could pull off a satisfying horror series. Those lingering doubts were quickly answered by the first few episodes, with a thrilling story about a broken family, the Harmons, moving across the country to a house in L.A. They happened to buy the house because it was discounted cheap on the real estate market, as the previous owners had killed themselves in a murder-suicide confrontation. Unfortunately for the Harmons, they quickly learn all is not right and that the house is haunted by its troubled past.
One of the joys in watching American Horror Story are the twists and turns in the narrative, as the mystery about the house deepens with every episode until a few shocking truths are revealed. It’s one of those shows where the less one knows about the plot and characters going in will produce more enjoyment for the viewer. The scares are effective and draw upon a long line of horror tropes, framing them within the turmoil of a psychotic family struggling to cope with their domestic problems. Witty dialog is complemented by wonderful performances from the lead actors and a host of strong supporting roles.
The pilot introduces us to the family. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is a psychiatrist that cheated on his pregnant wife, Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), right before she had a miscarriage. He decides the family needs a change and moves from Boston to L.A., taking teen daughter Violet along for the move. She is emotionally disturbed herself, an outcast at school that doesn’t get along with the popular kids.
The marriage falling apart, almost immediately the Harmons are confronted in their new house by strange occurrences and decide to move out. Unfortunately for them, the real estate market is in the pits and the house’s reputation has spread around L.A. Known as the “Murder House” for the long line of deaths and accidents that have occurred in it, the Harmons can’t afford to sell at a loss and are stuck with it.
In a stunning role that won her the Golden Globe and considered her best work in decades, Jessica Lange enters the fray as Constance, a demented Southern belle of a woman that happens to be the Harmons’ neighbor. She shows an intense interest in the house from the very beginning and it’s immediately obvious something is up. Constance’s mentally-challenged adult daughter, Addie, starts appearing in the Harmons’ house unannounced. They have a twisted relationship and Constance definitely won’t win any mother-of-the-year awards for her shameful treatment of Addie. While the central story revolves around the Harmons, make no mistake that Constance steals the show with her manipulative tactics and creepy behavior.
While a number of supporting characters could be mentioned, it’s Tate (Evan Peters) as a troubled teen-aged patient undergoing therapy with Dr. Ben Harmon, that becomes another critical piece of the puzzle. A violent and dark personality, Tate soon becomes enamored with Violet. He ingratiates himself into the family through a series of bizarre events, but secrets about Tate start coming out that threaten his relationship with Violet. It’s at this point where the story takes a huge and shocking turn. Whatever you think is going to happen is likely wrong, but the twists are always handled in a plausible manner and adhere to the show’s internal logic.
American Horror Story is a well-crafted series, steeped in dark elements and the supernatural. It will scare you, occasionally make you laugh, and almost definitely surprise you with some of the shocking reveals. The story is heavily serialized from episode to episode and it might be helpful to know that the first season tells a complete story with a satisfying conclusion, as the show’s second season features a totally unrelated cast and characters. Its first season here was one of the most compelling seasons on television in the past decade. The seventeen Emmy nominations it garnered are a testament to the respect this show received across Hollywood.
For a relatively new show that debuted in the Fall of 2011, American Horror Story strongly reflects the nature of how it was shot using Super 35 film. A format common for theatrical features and television shows a few years ago, the time and budgetary constraints of a television production often produce a grittier texture to the cinematography when Super 35 filming is employed. American Horror Story is no exception in that regard. It is not the glossy and pristine HD experience that viewers have become so accustomed to on television shows with the advent of digital video cameras.
Fox’s three-disc set includes all twelve episodes of season one, encoded in the standard AVC codec. The average video bitrate is 21 Mbps according to the package. The first two discs comprise of five episodes apiece, both of them being BD-50s. The third disc is a BD-25 and contains the bulk of the extra features, alongside the final two episodes. While compression artifacts are not a significant factor, the grain and detail within the darker shadows would have been better preserved at a higher compression rate. A minor amount of noise and questionable detail at times indicates the transfer was starved of bits in certain areas. This is a series that runs 552 minutes over the course of the twelve episodes and presented at its native aspect ratio as it was broadcast on FX, 1.78:1 in 1080p resolution.
As for the picture itself, American Horror Story revels in the rich saturation of primary colors and solid black levels. There are no significant instances of black crush, though shadow delineation is not perfect. Exterior shots are by far the cleanest, with excellent contrast and a vivid quality that screams HD. Interiors are occasionally murky, particularly when the action shifts to the basement of the Harmons’ house.
The interior scenes are warmly lit with a darker contrast that sets the frightening tone of the house’s true evil. Here is where the image retains a higher level of unfiltered grain. There is some occasional ringing, possibly a byproduct of trying to help out the largely flat picture. American Horror Story is not shot with a lot of depth or dimension, instead softening the picture a bit to add a slightly surreal quality to living in the house. A number of scenes shift the color timing for vintage flashbacks, especially when the story flashes back to the 1920s.
Always a critical component of horror-themed movies, American Horror Story is graced with a satisfactory 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The somewhat restrained surround design belies the fact this is a production originally made for cable television. Fidelity is perfectly fine and there is a moderate amount of quality bass, but the soundtrack really only shines when the occasional Pop song or classic Oldie is thrown in for effect. The surround channels get the most use when typical horror cues like violin stabs are employed to scare the listener or something surreal is about to occur within the house.
One striking thing about the soundtrack is its penchant to take notes or instrumental sections from famous horror films. While nothing is blatantly obvious, there are homages in the score to music from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Omen, not to mention other famous film music like Bernard Hermann’s work in Psycho and Vertigo. Fox has included subtitle options in English SDH, Spanish and French.
Fox has provided several extra features for the first season of American Horror Story, though it turned out so good one wonders if enough were provided for this cult hit. The presence of only one commentary, with no participation from the principal actors, is a little disappointing. Overall it is still a solid bunch of extras that fans will want to dip through at least once.
The Murder House presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood (6:35 in 1080p) – A brief recap of the more traumatic events to take place within the haunted house, shot in the manner of a faux camcorder recording of the tour. It features the same actor that played the tour guide on the show.
Behind The Fright: The Making Of American Horror Story (24:38 in 1080p) – This is a wide-ranging documentary covering many different aspects of the show’s production and themes. Key interviews with both Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton give great insight into their opinions of their characters and how the story unfolds. It’s an excellent piece that hits a lot of topics without being bland marketing material.
Overture to Horror: Creating The Title Sequence (9:12 in 1080p) – The title designer and the show’s composer discuss how the title sequence came together, with its spooky industrial sounds.
Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts (15:10 in 1080p) – I won’t spoil which actors show up to be interviewed in this featurette, because it only features characters that are ghosts within the house. Many viewers will find it a disappointment when Alexandra Breckenridge, the actress playing the sexy ghost housemaid Moira, reveals she is nothing like her sexpot character on the show.
Audio Commentary on the Pilot Episode – Series co-creator and head showrunner, Ryan Murphy, primarily discusses the mechanics of the first episode and some background on the show before production. It’s mostly an entertaining commentary, though I would have liked to have heard him also speak on other episodes.
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Note: Screen shots are sourced from the first episode.