Is Ryan Murphy channeling Dario Argento in delirious “American Horror Story: Coven”?
Director David Gordon Green’s long-planned remake of Dario Argento’s candy-colored giallo masterpiece “Suspiria” (1977) is apparently dead. Which is a shame, obviously, although there is a sense in which TV auteur Ryan Murphy has already beaten Green to the punch. It would be hard to imagine a more a stylish and flamboyant Argento homage than Murphy’s “American Horror Story: Coven” (FX), the just-launched third season anthology format drama series. Also hard to imagine that any show will be more fun to watch over the weeks ahead.
Conventional sensibilities will fall back on “Harry Potter” or “The X-Men” as reference points for this story in which a group of preternaturally gifted young people are packed off to a special school to learn to harness their exceptional powers — powers that we normals regard with fear leading to oppressive resentment.
Viewers with sharper eyes and ears, and longer memories for outre genre cinema, will see at once that the ruthless gothic sensibility and the garish Deco visuals of AHS:C have a lot more in common with Argento’s flagrant supernatural slasher, in which a young lady is packed off to a German dancing academy inhabited by witches. The incessant jittery jump cuts, the expressionistic use of colored gels, the dizzyingly tilted “Dutch” (formerly “Chinese”) camera angles–all these features are echt Argento. (The evidence is only a click away: TOH’s Ryan Lattanzio featured Argento’s films in his streaming column this week.)
In standard popular narrative terms our POV character is Taissa Farmiga’s Zoe Benson, who needs to make herself scarce after inadvertently exsanguinating her boyfriend during sex. Relocated to Miss Robichaux’s School for Exceptional Young Ladies in steamy New Orleans; the great Sara Paulson is headmistress, with Jessica Lange casting a long shadow as her domineering mother. Zoe wins over a potential rival (Emma Roberts’ Madison Montgomery, a debauched Hollywood starlet) and catches the eye of well-meaning frat boy (Evan Peters) at a nearby college. A party hearty attempted gang-rape, followed by a pair of chillingly remorseless acts of bloody telekinetic revenge, round out this perverse variation on a raunchy youth comedy.
But the romantic heartaches and mean girl rivalries of the budding young witches attempting to get a handle on their potentially lethal abilities form only the top layer on this deeply stratified entertainment. In a flashback to the 1830s we meet society witch Kathy Bates, performing grisly magical experiments upon her imprisoned slaves, and a voodoo priestess, played by Angela Basset. Within minutes Bates’s Madame LaLaurie will be resurrected to wreak havoc in the present. A struggle for power seems likely between these two schools of murderous magic, complicating the lives of the younger people in the foreground story.
Bear in mind, only one episode of AHS:C has been unveiled. Until the themes and/or agendas of this season come into focus, the best reason to keep watching, at least for a few more weeks, are the-go-for-broke generosity of Ryan Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk as writers, the intoxicated pictorialism of the visual style established by première-episode director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and the exuberant cast, who relish the lewd acts and cutting remarks that have been created for them, performances which hover just on the far side of camp without quite spilling over.
It’s difficult to get your head around how much nerve-jangling entertainment value has been packed into this one hour-long episode. As a basic cable show, “Coven” pushes the envelope in terms of violence and language, exercising discretion only in its displays of bare skin. (Bodies with the skin removed are another matter entirely.) The sense of menace that is the lifeblood of any effort in the horror genre is still present, despite an overriding sense of playfulness, if only because there seem to be few lines these showrunners are not willing to cross, often shockingly, at a moment’s notice.
One footnote: The AHS franchise has in the past sampled the soundtracks from the music scores of classic horror films, which leads one to hope that some snippets of the tumultuous music created for “Suspiria” by the Italian art-rock ensemble Goblin will eventually be featured. In the meantime, here’s a taste, in an effective fan-created “trailer:”