Fact vs. Fiction
The first episode of “My Roanoke Nightmare” was intriguing, not just because the ads were maddeningly vague (to the point where assuming Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck simply hadn’t thought of an idea yet was not out of the question), but because once the set-up of the season was revealed, it was such a departure for “American Horror Story.” Sure, at its core it’s another one of ‘AHS”s patented haunted houses, but the docu-series angle was a fresh twist.
Still, it’s a set-up with some concerns, most particularly how this conceit will play out over an entire season of television. Did they honestly hire Lily Rabe and Andre Holland just to provide running commentary? Doesn’t the fact that all of the characters these events “really” happened to are perfectly safe in the present day kind of dampen the drama of the re-enactments? Are they seriously doing another haunted house? And most importantly, who funded “My Roanoke Nightmare”? Because these re-enactments are very well-acted.
There’s still plenty of time for the show to play with the documentary format, but so far it’s been pretty straight-forward stuff. At least in the premiere, the characters were often separated and secretive with each other, both in the re-enactments and in “reality,” but in ‘Chapter 2’ the talking heads are painfully perfunctory. Shelby screams in the woods and then we cut to Real Shelby going, “Boy, was I scared in those woods.” Shelby yells at a cop as Matt looks on, then we cut to Real Matt going, “Man, Shelby really yelled at that cop.” It adds nothing and undercuts any investment we have in the re-enactment by constantly reminding us it’s an illusion. Which isn’t to say that art that calls attention to its own artifice can’t be great, but “Certified Copy” this ain’t.
This Week In Horror
The opening sequence is effective enough, as Shelby stumbles upon Kathy Bates and a bunch of other old-timies trying a man for stealing. Apparently this lot has a zero-tolerance policy for petty crimes, because they cut off his hand, nail a pig’s tail to his butt, stuff his head in a bloody pig’s skin, then burn him alive. That seems like overkill to me, but I’ve never been a part of a Pig-Fetish Nightmare Ghost Cult, so what do I know?
Unfortunately the middle section of the episode gets awfully repetitive, hitting the same beats as “Chapter 1.” One of the house’s residents sees something freaky, they call the cops, the cops are nonplussed, repeat several times. If this were a movie, we’d be at the point where the residents of the house really believe that it’s haunted, but since we’ve got a 10-episode season to fill, we’re still at the “disbelief” stage. It’s monotonous.
Things pick up a bit when a ghost child leads Shelby and Matt to a cellar where they find a video left by the house’s previous owner, Denis O’Hare. He recounts the tale of two nurses who murdered a bunch of senior citizens on the premises until they were dispatched by a “greater evil,” but they still seem to be haunting the place, which is par for the course for an ‘AHS’ haunted house (or hotel, in the case of last season). The nurses had a gimmick that’s too goofy to be horrific: they killed people according to what letter their first name started with, so that their victims’ initials could spell out “MURDER.” Hilariously, they aren’t able to complete their task, so “MURDE” is the scary message forever etched in the house’s walls. Kudos to Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding, Jr. for selling “MURDE” as a truly disturbing sight. Maybe the killer nurses were trying to swear in French but were terrible spellers. Hey, maybe this is “Certified Copy!”
Lee Is The Worst
It might be unfair to name a rubric section this after only two episodes, but boy, Lee really gets the short end of the stick this week, writing-wise. Her ex-husband Mason brings their daughter, Flora, out to the house for a visit, which goes about as well as can be expected. If you’ve seen literally any haunted house movie, you know that if there’s a child, that child is a) going to be able to see and talk to the ghosts and b) get kidnapped by the ghosts. This is Horror 101, and “Roanoke” at least has the decency to cut to the chase and have Flora start chatting with a ghost child more or less the second she steps into the house.
After Flora creeps Mason out by talking about her new ghost friend, Mason takes her away in a huff, vowing to get a judge to review Lee’s custody rights. Still, points to Flora for delivering the episode’s creepiest moment, as she deadpans, “They’re going to kill us all. And they’re going to save me for last.” That is one chill kid! If she can take a ghost’s murder threats in stride, her parents’ bickering should be no sweat.
Mason’s threat causes Lee to fall off the wagon, which is pretty bad, but nothing compared to how she outright kidnaps Flora once she sobers up. Shelby and Matt are suitably horrified (Shelby even narcs on Lee to Mason), and Lee seems to immediately realize she’s done something stupid. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that she really did do something incredibly stupid and out of left field. It just makes Lee look unreliable and unlikable, even before Flora gets inevitably ghost-napped. It’s all just drama for drama’s sake, and none of it feels real or motivated.
I appreciate this season of “American Horror Story”’s attempt to try something new and different in its formatting, but so far the story is overly familiar and not very intriguing, and it’s not immediately clear how this mode of storytelling could comfortable fill a full television season. Still, if any show can shake things up from episode to episode, it’s this one. We live in hope.