REVIEW: AHS: 1984

American Horror Story: 1984. Created by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk. FX, 2019.

Special Note

            Just after I published my “Breckflix Update” last week, studios began announcing their plans to release their upcoming films on digital and streaming early as they, like the rest of the world, adapt to the current global health crisis. Just after that, various theaters announced that they would be closing in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Though I do plan to start reviewing more digital content—especially some of the titles that will now debut on streaming—this review comes at the odd pause between theatrical distribution and the surge in newly on-demand titles. So, I decided to try something new, and went to television. Enjoy! (I mean, you don’t have to enjoy, you just need to read it.)

Premiere Impressions

            I first discovered AHS when only the first two seasons were available on Netflix. Instantly intrigued by the overwhelming weirdness, I live-texted my fellow media friend—we dubbed ourselves the “Queens of Candyland” in honor of the show—throughout my viewing of both initial seasons. My relationship with the series has been consistent, if sporadic, since, but I have seen all eight previous seasons of the show. I’ve heard much chatter about the success of the ninth season, so I dove into 1984 (now streaming on Hulu) with high expectations. The slasher subgenre will always hold a special place in my heart. I grew up watching them—when I was way too young to be watching them, mind you—and always found myself fascinated by the rotating ensembles of victims fighting back against the repressive monster. They were the perfect mode of horror for me: scary enough that you could find yourself getting tense, but goofy enough that you could laugh with your friends about it. Though it took nine seasons, American Horror Story finally utilizes the classic subgenre as its inspiration, and though it may have some narrative missteps, the season definitely captures the essence of the slasher.  

            1984 centers on a group of camp counselors—obviously—at the mysterious Camp Redwood, a newly-reopened camp—of course—ravaged by a vicious killer—duh—fourteen years earlier. The first couple of episodes follow the classic formula pretty directly, with the exception that there are two killers chasing after the young cast. As the show continues, though, it puts its own AHS-spin on the happenings. Various backstories are revealed, the plot is complicated, and then, toward the end, it gets over-complicated. Whereas the first half is straight out of the slasher canon, the back half is a mystery ghost story.

            The women of 1984, made up of many of the AHS stock company, shine in their respective roles. Emma Roberts displays surprising range as defacto final girl, Brooke. Billie Lourd, as wild girl Montana, continues to get better each season she’s in. Leslie Grossman is quickly becoming a rival to Sarah Paulson’s AHS throne. Newcomer Angelica Ross is fantastic to watch. The men, are more of a mixed bag, but what’s new with men, right? Cody Fern has a great time with his role as the leader of the counselors, and Olympian Gus Kenworthy, uh, tries. Matthew Morrison (who is supposed to be playing a 25-year-old, somehow) is hampered by delivering some of the worst dialogue in recent memory. He has to straight-faced deliver a line about motorcycles that is so bad I had to pause the show. But, even if there are a lot of great things happening with the victims, the show is really about the killers.

Remember in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when Titus auditions for the new musical Spider-Man Too: 2 Many Spider-Man? 1984 is essentially that, but with slasher villains. Before I started, I figured the show would feature one villain, like the majority of the slasher films of which it is referential. Pretty early on, we establish that there are two primary killers: Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch), a former camper who went mad one night and has returned to again terrorize Camp Redwood, and Richard Ramirez (Zach Villa), aka the Nightstalker, loosely based on the real-life Los Angeles serial killer of the same name. Though the show does spend a great deal of introductory episodes focusing on the primary group of victims at the camp, the season’s narrative is really structured around these two villains, Mr. Jingles in particular. When he is first introduced, Jingles seems like a bit of a bore. He starts the season as another hyper-strong, Michael Myers-esque monster who stomps around and kills his victims in various bloody ways. As the season progresses, though, he becomes the most interesting and complex character in the ensemble, which is no doubt in part to Lynch’s commitment to the character.

The Nightstalker, though, is incredibly dull. Whereas each episode unveils new layers of Mr. Jingles’ tortured soul, the Nightstalker basically just repeats over and over some nonsense dialogue about Satan. For a show whose previous season was built entirely around the antichrist, the Nightstalker seems like a redundant waste of screen time. 1984 could have been even more effective had the show relegated the Nightstalker into the supporting cast of other killers.

Pretty much in every episode, at least after episode four, either another killer is introduced, or another character is revealed to be a killer. The first time a reveal happens, it serves as the episode’s big twist, and, oh boy, it is effective. Then, it becomes tired. I understand the show’s intention to thematically explore the “darkness” that lives in all of us, but the same hand can only be played so many times. By the end of the season, every character is a killer, yet instead of making the slasher formula more complex, we actually lose some of the humanity AHS usually finds even within its darkest characters.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • This season has the least creepy, but also best opening credits yet.
  • The season is still one of the most coherent and focused seasons of the series, but the magic is lost a little bit when we leave 1984, which is far more of the show than I would expect from a season subtitled 1984.
  • The first several episodes are definitely the stronger bunch, but everything happens at night, and the show is not masterfully lit.
  • Every time Lily Rabe appears in AHS, the season is automatically five times better – the 1948 flashback is by far the best sequence in this season.
  • No matter how many times I see Leslie Jordan, I will always shout, “Beverly Leslie!” at the screen.
  • Cody Fern always looks like he’s about an hour after hearing some unfortunate news…and I’m kind of into it?
  • As an academic, I admittedly get excited when characters in horror directly mention Carol Clover’s Final Girl, but it is so common as meta-dialogue now, we need to come up with something new to reference.

The Final Tea

            1984 may not go down as American Horror Story’s best season, but Mr. Jingles is certain to become an iconic character in the show’s history, and the Jingles-focused finale could be the show’s greatest final episode to date.

GRADE: B+

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