The sixth installment of FX’s frighteningly successful horror show has come to its gory conclusion, after 10 episodes of jump scares, meta-narratives, and phone batteries that never seem to die.
American Horror Story was in dire need of a fresh coat of paint after the close of last year’s season. The show had undoubtedly begun to lose momentum, with the scenes of genuine horror that were rife across the first two seasons having been replaced by confusing narratives and an excess of characters. Perhaps it was simply that viewers had become acclimatized to excessive violence and slightly bizarre sexual themes; perhaps the writers had become a little lost in their own complex, over-arching plot (the supposed ‘link’ between each season). In any case, there was an indisputably large burden riding on the shoulders of the newest variation of blood and guts to spill from the twisted minds of Falchuk and Murphy: and, shrouded in secrecy as it was, there was an equally substantial sense of anticipation.
So did it deliver?
I’ll begin by saying a little about the choice of theme for this year’s offering, the dubiously named My Roanoke Nightmare. Ditching the whacky worlds inhabited by the characters of Hotel or Freak Show, this latest variation plants us very firmly in the present day, opting for as much realism as it could muster in the form of a documentary concerning the story of a couple who were unfortunate enough to spend time in the house at Roanoke (if you don’t know the history, Google the name). It’s a tried and tested method that worked very well, allowing the viewers both insight into the real-time events – through ‘dramatic re-enactment’ – as well as a glimpse of the way their experiences had altered the lives of the interviewees. This was the most well-organised portion of the series as a whole, and succeeded in forging emotional attachments between viewer and character, particularly as the gaunt expressions on the faces of those telling the story proved more haunting than the false horror of the re-enactment.
This technique lasted all of 6 episodes, however, and soon gave way to a complete commitment to the world that was revolving behind the cameraman’s equipment. The show lost its efficacy a little at this point, as well-formed simplicity gave way to a feeling of headlong charge toward an ending that remained unclear until long after the final credits rolled. It was an intelligent premise: pull the actors from their dramatic re-enactment and give them form in the real world, pair their theatrical audacity with the scarred survivors of the real events, and return them to the scene of the crime. In reality, however, this translated as a little hit-and-miss, as the story told in the opening episodes was placed on repeat and passed around the ‘new’ victims like a tray of champagne at a fancy event. There comes a point, sadly, when a horde of angry ghosts from the colonial era fail to shock, especially if they’ve already appeared several times previously.
The techniques involved in rendering any horror story realistic are by this point well known to anyone who ever had the misfortune of seeing The Blair Witch Project. The footage has to seem authentic, and so is shot using either cameras rigged by the ‘production team’ within the show or simply through some form of personal recording device. I’m a bit skeptical of these techniques, and so any slip on the part of the actual production team is in my eyes an unforgivable crime. Used during the second portion of the season, the authentic approach in this instance meant giving the cast members mobile phones with nothing but the camera function available; from the outset, this was a flawed concept, as we all know that even the best phone on the planet will not run for longer than around 5 hours straight. I’d let this slide, were it not for the throwaway comments made to justify such extraordinary technology: at one point, Sarah Paulson’s horrendously caricatured Brit simply exclaimed “I can’t believe this bloody thing is still working!” as if voicing my exact concerns.
I could continue to criticize the choice of filming method, arguing that realism would not entail any man or woman holding a mobile phone whilst being frightened/maimed to the point of unintelligible screams; that the occasional slip to a camera clearly not attached to any one person/object is inadmissible. But I’ll stop, because I’m becoming a little neurotic.
So what about the acting? Many of the cast members we know and love from previous seasons made a return, and performed their roles with the vigour that we’ve come to expect from them. Particular praise must go out to Dennis O’Hare, for his unfortunately brief role as a paranormal researcher trapped on the Roanoke property; Lily Rabe, who maintained her evidently unhinged characterization of Shelby Miller with style throughout the season; and new-comer Andre Holland, who offered us a frankness of character in his portrayal of Matt Miller that we last saw in Dylan McDermott’s Ben Harmon.
Unfortunately, however, there remained a vast number of extra characters whose importance was under-stressed or left entirely open to debate, and I was sad to see that veteran AHS cast members such as Evan Peters or Sarah Paulson were either relegated to smaller roles or given awful ones. What the show lacked, in simple terms, was realistic human beings to match its realistic intent. Rabe and Holland were as close to real people as we could have hoped for, but their larger-than-life colleagues were a shot in the foot for the fear factor and realism of this latest season. Once again, lines uttered by Sarah Paulson set the tone, as her continued wails of “Oh my God!” or “Bloody Hell!” in the worst British accent I’ve ever heard resounded like a hiccough at a funeral.
My final point is a mixture of conclusion and complaint. The last episode of Roanoke ought to have been a blood-bath or a happy ending, a moment in which the characters established over the course of the series either meet a gruesome end or limp away scarred but alive. By episode 10, however, these established characters were mostly dead. The finale was therefore symptomatic of the reason why American Horror Story is, in my opinion at least, losing its appeal: I was shocked to see that, rather than drawing a neat full stop, the episode instead introduced no less than five new (and one hilariously old) characters, and ran at least three of them through the same Roanoke routine, before killing them off and hurriedly attempting to construct conclusion out of thin air. Significant plot points were brushed over or forgotten entirely (what happened to the evil Lady Gaga witch?), and even a movement toward uniting the seasons was crushed under the weight of uncertainty.
It was, all in all, an incredibly unsatisfying resolution to a season that had a mountain of potential at its fingertips: a season that had started with such force, shifted gear with such bare-faced – if not misguided – bravery, and pointed the entire American Horror Story series in a brand new direction. A real shame, in my opinion, but one that speaks volumes to the idea that old habits die hard.