When Nip/Tuck creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story first surfaced a couple of years ago, it proved to be a high camp, deliciously OTT small screen take on classic horror movie conventions.
This second installment ups the ante significantly, with the action transported to a 1960s US asylum and the general atrocities you might imagine could go on there.
Reuniting some of the cast of the first season’s haunted house adventures
, though with each actor playing a different role, we see Jessica Lange preposterous as ever as Briarcliff Mental Institution’s authoritarian senior nun, Sister Jude, who is charged with overseeing the recuperation of accused killer Kit (Evan Peters), lesbian journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) and axe murderer Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brochere).
Along the way, we encounter Zachary Quinto, returning as the enigmatic Dr Thredson, alongside new recruits Joseph Fiennes as the Institution’s troubled Monsignor and the great James Cromwell as Dr Arden, who may or may not be an escaped Nazi war criminal.
As brutal as the first outing, Asylum pushes the boundaries of television censorship with often unrelentingly grim depictions of torture and savagery. Still, this is made extremely palatable by an excellent ensemble cast throwing themselves into the sometimes almost cartoon caricature roles. With supporting turns from a brilliantly (literally) devil-may-care Lily Rabe as the possessed Sister Mary Eunice and the perfectly cast Chloe Sevigny as a doomed nymphomaniac, it’s the performances which really mark this out as great TV.
A few problems do arise, though. Occasionally, shaky writing and melodramatic silliness do take over as plot contrivances serve to confuse in a badly-written, rather than deliberately mad-ass David Lynch way, making a few moments which should have been gloriously out-there just a bit underwhelming. Still, with guest writers including The X Files’ James Wong and Buffy writer Doug Petrie on board, there remains plenty of quality to patch over these weaknesses.
Immediately after former Nine Inch Nails man Charlie Clouser’s distinctively creepy theme finishes, it’s obvious everyone involved is having a whale of a time, not least its creators. By rebooting the franchise for every season, the idea is raised that no-one is safe from the bloody vengeance of serial killer Bloodyface or the even worse (real life) treatments those deviating from the norm are subjected to. By being able to both kill off and keep major characters, there is a freshness here that is rarely felt in an established series now three years into production.
A creative masterstroke of sorts, American Horror Story’s time-travelling freakshow seemingly has limitless potential.
Extras: With a series as entertaining as this, you don’t really need a lot of extras to sell the boxset to its cult audience. Still, there are a few nice, if a little standard, featurettes to accompany the main presentation.
‘The Creatures’ takes a look at the sometimes spellbinding prosthetics and special effects (particularly in the case of pinhead Pepper) used in the show, whilst ‘Welcome To Briarcliff’ talks about the thinking behind the ornate set design. Deleted scenes add little to what’s already shown elsewhere though ‘The Orderly’ is an entertaining short focusing on the fate of one of the low-level Briarcliff staff members.
Released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 21 October 2013 by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.