After months of skillfully marketed suspense, the Season 6 premiere of “American Horror Story” had a lot to live up to: Not only did they need to reveal a theme worth the 24 teasers released to perplex and entice fans, but it had to justify the momentous buildup for the latest entry in a franchise with very few worthwhile entries.
For the most part, “My Roanoke Nightmare” lived up to the hype. While horror fans may be left unenthused by the lack of juicy shocks or gruesome violence, Season 6’s first entry marked a more measured approach than last year’s cheap mishmash of motifs from better movies, and it set up a mystery worth further investigation.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers below for “American Horror Story” Season 6.]
The biggest reveal of the night came right out of the gate: The Season 6 theme is “My Roanoke Nightmare” and it’s presented as a documentary featuring interviews and dramatic re-enactments “inspired by true events.” Presumably, the story of a couple who moves to an isolated house in North Carolina will connect to the historical “Lost Colony,” a group of more than 100 people who mysteriously disappeared from the area in 1590. Though the time periods are left deliberately fuzzy, the action in Season 6 is certainly modern, even if the actors in the re-enactments (reenactors?) are notably older than those “remembering” their stories.
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In the presumed present, Lily Rabe plays Shelby, a yoga teacher who marries Matt (Andre Holland), a traveling salesman, and move to Los Angeles to start a life together. But then Matt suffers a traumatic accident; one that may have caused Shelby to lose their unborn child. Seeking a fresh start, the couple — portrayed by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the most overqualified reenactors of all time — moves to Matt’s home state of North Carolina, where they find a spacious (and uber creepy) house at a bargain price. Despite Shelby’s qualms — “From the very first moment, I felt danger there” — the couple moves in, and…well, you know the rest.
And you really do — mostly. “My Roanoke Nightmare’s” premiere episode isn’t terribly original in its story or with its scares, but it doesn’t rip off famous films like last year’s entry, “Hotel.” Instead, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk choose to tease out what the season may look like moving forward by providing spooky glimpses of series favorites Wes Bentley and Kathy Bates, as well as introducing Angela Bassett in the new season’s first supporting gig: Matt’s sister, Lee (played by Adina Porter in the presumed present). There are many other jump scares and predictable homages: The documentary style, for instance, is pulled straight from Syfy’s “Paranormal Witness.” But what feels like the cheapest ripoff likely isn’t.
Late in the episode, Shelby and Lee are lured to the basement and end up trapped as intruders surround their home. When they finally get upstairs, the sisters-in-law discover crosses made of twigs strung throughout the house. Soon after, Shelby finds the same cross-shaped bundles in the woods after getting lost (despite only walking a few steps from the road). Anyone watching live might not have sparked to what everyone watching next week will immediately identify — that is, if it hadn’t been for a well-timed film trailer mid-way through the airing. “Blair Witch” is coming out, everyone, and it seems like “American Horror Story” knew it.
Only they couldn’t. Kept secret until a surprise screening at Comic-Con in late July, “Blair Witch” was thought to be “The Woods” — just another horror flick set in the forest. By the time anyone found out what it really was, “My Roanoke Nightmare” had to be well into production. So even though those twig crosses look a lot like twig witches, the reference seems unintentional — or at least timed to a film most believed to be over long ago.
If the above sounds like an unwarranted analysis, let me again point you to last season’s disastrous opening. “American Horror Story” is a franchise made up of only one original conceit: great actors giving honest performances. The soapy material is there to serve them, and it’s either carefully updated to be suitably familiar or lazily copied and insufferable. So heading into the mysterious sixth season, critics should rightly be a bit guarded about “homages” that feel more like plagiarism. While that is thankfully not the case here, that doesn’t mean “My Roanoke Nightmare” is without cliches or flaws.
Just about every creepy element of the house was far too obvious from the get go, and writers Murphy and Falchuk phoned in the in-house frights meant to unnerve Shelby. The straight-to-camera offerings felt fake, too, which is the exact opposite tone intended when you write in a line like, “Can we stop for a moment, please?” (when Lee’s character gets overly emotional while recounting a story). But we dare not fault any aspect of “AHS” featuring the great Andre Holland — a welcome presence anywhere on TV, and one we hope to see more of in future episodes.
And, for the first time in at least three years, we’ll be watching those episodes. Murphy and Falchuk didn’t exactly sell a whole new “Horror Story” in the first hour, but what’s here marks an effort to try something new in a franchise that both reinvents itself every season and remains frustratingly similar. What’s with the reenactors being older than their “real-life” counterparts? How do these people survive? What’s Wes Bentley doing in the woods? Some of these questions are more pressing than others, but “My Roanoke Nightmare” is a promising start with a central mystery as tantalizing as the ads teasing it. The marketing paid off, now Ryan Murphy has to, too.