Sunday, November 27, 2016

life's no fun without a good scare

I have always been a horror fan. The problem with the current trend in horror is it's too stupid and formulaic. What happened to good writing and clever plot twists? Now it's all jump scares and gory images for the sake of exhibiting someone's special effects skills. Where is the stylized framing of Silence of the Lambs? Where is the suspenseful storytelling of Psycho? Even the original slasher films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and even Friday the 13th had well-conceived back stories before they were milked dry by four hundred inane sequels.

Submitted for your approval.
Since movies were disappointing, I turned to television and there was plenty of promise. When I was in elementary school, I was permitted to stay up to watch the NBC horror anthology Night Gallery hosted by Rod Serling. It was my favorite show (at the time) offering short vignettes featuring a roster of popular television actors in roles outside of their comfort level. Then I discovered reruns of Rod's earlier show, the venerable Twilight Zone. I also watched The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. All of these pretty much followed the same formula — some better some worse — but all satisfied my horror cravings... for the most part. I even enjoyed the 80s revival of The Twilight Zone as well as the theatrical film.

More recently, my television series watching habits have been limited to the unlikely pairing of HBO's brutal and gritty gangster saga Boardwalk Empire and the mindless teen fluff of Nickelodeon's iCarly. Now that both of those series are out of production, I watch whatever is on, rarely going out of my way to catch a "must-see" program.

I saw early ads for a new series on Fox's cutting edge FX network called American Horror Story. It presented a clever concept for an anthology — a core group of performers and a single story per season, with the same group taking on different roles in a different story in subsequent seasons. The initial reception was positive and the show proved popular... no thanks to me, as I never watched. It wasn't until season four that I decided to give it a shot.

May I take this opportunity to acknowledge that I'm in the minority, but, give me my two minutes to bitch.

I settled in on that early October evening in 2014 to see for myself what all the buzz was about. As the opening scenes of American Horror Story: Freak Show began, I waited to be impressed... and to experience the thrill of being scared. A little over an hour later, I was bored, disappointed and a little annoyed. I found that the show relied too much on "looking cool," with its atmospheric shots, grainy filters and stark, creepy-on-purpose sets, and not enough time was devoted to story development. I thought the acting was stilted and not at all compelling. Even multi-award-winning actress Jessica Lange could hold my interest, especially when she delivered a cover of the 1971 Bowie classic "Life on Mars," as the anachronistic episode finale of a story set in 1952. I snapped off the TV and vowed never to watch this mess again.

Well, after skipping an entire season, I decided to give American Horror Story another chance. My son came over and we binge-watched the first two episodes of season six. The series had abandoned its standard TV drama format in favor of the premise of a reality show, complete with in-studio, after-the-fact interviews and reenactments. It was sort of a show within a show within a show with actors playing actors playing real people. I was interested. I found myself enjoying the tale as it unfolded. It was a unique take on the storytelling. I was hooked. Reluctant, but hooked just the same. I watched the next episode in its regular time slot. Three episodes in and I was still enjoying it. My son, however, warned me. He told me that series creator Ryan Murphy has this uncanny knack for losing interest in his shows as they progress. He tends to go in several different directions, never fully resolving all aspects of all storylines.

Sure enough, that observation was spot on

In the following weeks, American Horror Story: Roanoke became a veritable shit show. But I watched. I was committed. I was going to see this fiasco out until the bitter end. Characters were introduced and killed. Characters were introduced and forgotten. And the characters that we got to see on every episode were cartoonish, one-dimensional sketches only serving as a bag full of theatrical blood, ready to explode when the time was right... or not right... or whenever. The series morphed into a shrill, sprawling, mindless, contradicting, aimless mish-mash that I wanted to end. And soon. By episode eight (of a ten episode series), I just wanted it to be done. It became a chore to watch. I counted the minutes until it was over, like I was taking a test in high school. I began recording the episodes, so I could fast-forward through commercials, shortening my time spent watching this shambles. At last, the final episode was broadcast. I watched, emotionless. Numbed. Disinterested. And 41 minutes later, thanks to 4x fast-forward, it was done. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters  — which ones were alive, which were dead, which were in purgatory, which were.... whatever.

This time, I swear, I will never watch that series again.

Now, I'm sure there's a Twilight Zone rerun that needs watching.

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