FX series American Horror Story is back for a second season, with Asylum. Some of the actors from the first season have returned, notably Jessica Lange who stars as Sister Jude, the autocratic administrator of Briarcliff Sanitarium. The setting has moved from (mostly) modern day urban California to (mostly) New England in the sixties, but the show remains thoughtful, gruesome and creepy.
As the series opens, plucky reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) scams her way into Briarcliff, pretending to do a story on their bakery. What she really wants to talk about is Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is accused of being vicious serial killer Bloody Face. Frustrated by the iron Sister Jude, Lana blackmails innocent Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) into sneaking her in. This doesn't end well, and soon Lana has been committed herself, for "treatment" of her lesbianism. It looks like she may be saved by the intervention of the upright Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto), but then again, pretty much everything you see at Briarcliff isn't what it seems.
As the show progresses through its thirteen episodes, we come to know more about the residents and staff at Briarcliff: the stern Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), who conducts twisted, and often fatal, experiments on the inmates, and may or may not be a Nazi war criminal; Grace (Lizzie Brochere), who murdered her family with an axe; Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), whose lust for power, and desire to change the world, cause him to overlook the more unsavory aspects of the asylum he supposedly runs.
One of the things that the producers of American Horror Story: Asylum do very, very well is that they force the viewer to evaluate and reevaluate the characters constantly. Those who begin as sympathetic and decent, may decline into wickedness and evil, while those we started out thinking of as villains gain our sympathy over time. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil cuts across every human heart, and these folks know it, and are interested in showing us the whole person. That's not to say that there aren't clear goodies and baddies, it's just that the mixture of each has to be reassessed as we move along.
Below is a list of episodes, with synopses as provided on the discs:
Episode 1: Welcome to Briarcliff
In 1964, the notorious serial killer Bloody Face is committed to the sanitarium Briarcliff Manor. Reporter Lana Winters arrives to interview the asylum's head nun, Sister Jude, but is secretly hoping for a story on Bloody Face.
Episode 2: Tricks and Treats
Lana plans an escape from Briarcliff, and enlists Grace's help. Meanwhile, Kit's court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson, arrives… And finds himself involved in an exorcism that goes terribly wrong.
Episode 3: Nor'easter
As a nor'easter storm approaches, a strangely transformed Sister Mary Eunice sows discontent, and worse. As Dr. Arden's strange experiments on Kit continue, another escape attempt is hatched, and Dr. Thredson makes a terrible discovery.
Episode 4: I am Anne Frank Part I
A woman is brought to Briarcliff who believes herself to be holocaust victim Anne Frank. Meanwhile, Dr. Thredson offers to help both Lana and Kit, and detectives arrive at Briarcliff… But who are they investigating.
Episode 5: I am Anne Frank Part II
A man claiming to be Anne's husband arrives, calling her story into doubt. Meanwhile, Grace has a bizarre and terrifying experience during which she receives unexpected information. And Dr. Thredson attempts to help Lana escape Briarcliff.
Episode 6: The Origins of Monstrosity
A sinister, murderous child is brought to Briarcliff. Meanwhile, Lana struggles to escape from her new predicament. We learn the history of Dr. Arden and Monsignor Timothy's collaboration. And we delve into the childhoods of Dr. Thredson and Sister Mary Eunice.
Episode 7: Dark Cousin
A terrifying being is summoned… One that even the possessed Sister Mary Eunice is scared of. As Kit and Lana resort to desperate measures, a despairing Sister Jude finds she can no longer run from her past.
Episode 8: Unholy Night
A killer who dresses as Santa Claus is an inmate at Briarcliff. As Sister Mary Eunice organizes a Christmas party, Sister Jude returns to confront her… But Sister Mary Eunice thinks it's time for "Santa" to come out and play.
Episode 9: The Coat Hanger
Lana finds herself pregnant and desperate for an abortion. Meanwhile, Sister Jude is framed for murder, and Dr. Arden approaches Kit with a bizarre proposition.
Episode 10: The Name Game
The monsignor resolves to help Sister Mary Eunice battle the devil within, while the now-powerless Jude is punished severely by the possessed nun. As Dr. Arden brings his experiments to a shocking end, Lana and Kit find themselves at Thredson's mercy once more.
Episode 11: Spilt Milk
As Grace brings Kit devastating news about the aliens' experiments on Alma, Sister Claudia and Monsignor Timothy confer on how to make things right… But the monsignor, still full of ambition, has other plans.
Episode 12: Continuum
Grace has developed a worrying obsession with the aliens, and it threatens Kit's newfound chance at a happy ending when things turn violent. Meanwhile, a deadly new inmate threatens Sister Jude's chance of release from Briarcliff.
Episode 13: Madness Ends
Past and present collide, and everyone's secrets are exposed.
Season 2 stacks up pretty well to Season 1. The tension is still there, and the disturbing imagery and themes. Season 2 does tend to go more quickly to the sexual deviancy angle, which comes off a little bit as a quick win at the expense of more subtle disturbance. And there are a few plotlines that are very reminiscent of ridiculous and trashy seventies horror films (the Christmas themed episodes in particular). But these are relatively small quibbles.
The performances are exceptionally good. Jessica Lange particularly is transcendent as the compassionless yet earnest nun. She struggles with her past, but undergoes at least two complete reversals, and is utterly believable at every turn. Lily Rabe as the innocent Sister Mary Eunice who is corrupted by a demon is also quite good. We completely believe the naïve and soft spoken Mary Eunice, and yet Rabe throws herself so completely into the possessed version that the transition doesn't seem forced or artificial. The show also has several really great guest appearances: Franka Potente as the woman who believes she is Anne Frank, Chloe Sevigny as the sex crazed Shelley, and Ian McShane as the Christmas obsessed serial killer are all evocative and fun. And, of course, Zachary Quinto turns in an even better performance than the previous season, the nature of which I won't reveal since it would give away important plot points.
The look of Asylum is also well executed and has a strong feeling of solidity and reality, even though it is shot almost entirely on constructed sets. It's visually interesting and Briarcliff truly becomes an additional character, adding significantly to the feelings of disquiet.
American Horror Story: Asylum is a worthy successor to the first season. It is somewhat less coherent thematically, but deals head on with such cultural issues as interracial marriage, the treatment of the mentally ill, social views of homosexuality, and a lot more, in an organic and thoughtful way. And it's pretty frightening and disturbing. Highly recommended.
The image is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks quite good. The colors are deep and rich, with lots of muted greys and greens, but also the occasional pops of red. This has the look of a great, gothic horror film of yesteryear, with the occasional insert of sixties TV effect or some such to accentuate a mood. The video is handled very well.
Audio is DTS Master Audio 5.1, and sounds great. Music is very important to setting the mood, and is presented in a full and encompassing manner. Soft whispers, footfalls and half heard noises are also essential, and the audio has enough subtlety to handle these well. English, Spanish and French subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
There are a few extras included, mostly on Disc Three. They are:
There are two sets of deleted scenes, on Disc Two and Three, and total up to a little under seven minutes. They appear to be cut for time, as they are interesting but probably superfluous. Mildly interesting.
This is essentially a nine minute short film, shot from the POV of a woman that one of the orderlies is showing around Briarcliff, culminating in a look at Bloody Face's cell. Things don't end well for the orderly.
What is American Horror Story Asylum
This is a behind the scenes featurette, coming in at 21:55, featuring interviews with many of the stars, executive producer Brad Falchuk, various directors and other crew members. The themes and characters of the show are discussed. Quite interesting.
Welcome to Briarcliff Manor
This is a fifteen minute featurette about the sets, featuring interviews with the cast, production designer, set decorator and costume designer. Also interesting.
This deals with the prosthetic and makeup effects, and details how the various creatures, blood gags and makeup was accomplished.
American Horror Story: Asylum is a little more scattered in theme than its predecessor, but still delivers the thrills, scares, interesting characters and thoughtful commentary that we've come to expect. This is a very good show that's excited to leap into issues that other shows might like to avoid, but it does it in a way that's fun and creepy. Hopefully, Falchuk, Murphy, Minear and company will continue with new seasons for some time to come.