American Horror Story: Asylum: “Welcome to Briarcliff”
There's a new manor in town and it has all the nuns bawling.
October 19, 2012 12:57 pmHayli Thomson
American Horror Story: Asylum is fleshed out. Expectedly more cult than camp, unlike its predecessor, the second instalment of the American Horror Story miniseries has conventional characters and a plotline rich in the historic tale of profound ignorance which without a doubt earns the show its title of a horror story.
The first episode, "Welcome to Briarcliff", opens with two newlyweds trespassing on the unkempt grounds of an abandoned manor in rural Massachusetts, the last stop on their "haunted honeymoon tour". Outside, there is a crucifix hanging from a branch, and a statue of a nun submerged in mud. Inside the manor, there’s kissing, and then a history lesson that the sexpot bride reads from her iPhone. We pay attention to keep up, because if there’s one thing that American Horror Story taught us last season, it’s that dates are important for keeping a non-linear narrative structure simple. In keeping with that same format, apparently American Horror Story: Asylum will not differ. So, Briarcliff manor was built in 1908 and was the largest tuberculosis ward on the east coast. 46,000 people died there. They shovelled the bodies out of an underground tunnel called "the death chute". The Catholic Church of Office bought Briarcliff in 1962 and turned it into a sanitarium for the criminally insane. Legend has it that once you were committed to Briarcliff, you never got out. Their most famous resident was a serial killer named Bloody Face, and…and the history lesson is abandoned in order for American Porn Story to commence. But before the young lovers get too far, there’s a creaking in the manor. They go to explore. Adam Levine puts his arm inside a pigeon hole of a locked door. Something bites it off.
After the cinematic experience that is the credits, we’re taken back to 1964. Keeping up? Evan Peters (Tate from last season) works at a gas station and his coveralls label him as "Kit". I’m guessing that soon enough he’ll have a number in the asylum instead, so we better figure out who he is now. Kit closes up for the night. Threatening friends show up and try to shame him about his new maid, a "coloured" girl. He goes home to the maid, who happens to be his secret wife. Mr. Kit Walker wants everyone to know about their relationship, but Mrs. Walker is hesitant with it being 1964 and all. American Porn Story starts up again. There’s a bright light in the bedroom. Headlights, we assume. That’s normal, expected. The harassing friends must be back. Now, let’s take a moment. I don’t even know what happens here. There’s a lot of alien matter. Bright white lights and muted screaming and Kit covering his ears and it’s all very overwhelming and unexpected. I’d rather move on.
Sarah Paulson plays Lana Winters. She seems normal. After arriving at Briarcliff in her sixties attire, one of the aesthetically frightening patients accosts her and begs, "play with me!". Sister Eunice, portrayed by Lily Rabe, tells the patient to leave the nice lady alone.
Lana: Oh, she was only trying to make friends. She’s harmless—
Sister: She’s not harmless. She drowned her sister’s baby and sliced his ears off.
Lana follows Sister Eunice inside the manor, where patients roam freely and feral. There are lots of close ups of these patients. Back in May, a casting call for extras was released. Take a look:
The extras casting director for ‘American Horror Story’ is currently accepting submissions. The following types are needed:
- All types should be 1920’s to 1960’s looking.
- Male and female mentally strange character types.
- Outrageous and contorted faces.
- Freaky, sickish, horrendous, eerie, emaciated types.
Casting producers obviously didn’t have a shortage of SAG extras lined up. As the sweet Sister Eunice leads Lana up what Sister Jude calls "her stairway to heaven", there are some remarkable shots which make me want to write a thesis titled "Ryan Murphy and how he defines ‘influence and inspiration’: employing the auteurship of other directors and getting away with it". But I can’t bring myself to worry that he’s "borrowed" from Brian De Palma, and even Alfred Hitchcock in a vertigo-entrancing shot of the staircase that seems all too familiar. So what’s the worst that can happen if Murphy borrows from De Palma who borrowed from Hitchcock? Is that a dangerous question? I’m not certain, but this new mould of direction and editing certainly looks good and works well on screen.
Another close-up shows Chloe Sevigny’s character getting her head shaved as a punishment. She has the expected disposition of the sane Briarcliff patient that she is. Into the superior’s office burst Lana and the sweet Sister Eunice. The creepy music stops. Jessica Lange looks up. So does the rest of America. With a clipper in one hand and a crucifix hanging from her neck, Sister Jude is the epitome of the fear-inciting-nun-in-charge, a role Lange emulates when she reveals to Lana in a thick Boston accent that, ‘Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin’. Sister Eunice interrupts to notify Sister Jude that "he" has arrived. Banter is made, and there’s an argument between Sister Jude and Lana that is fueled by such well-written dialogue that it’s inevitable that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will use lines from this scene in the package clip for Lange’s destined nomination for the 2013 Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Miniseries.
We soon learn that Lana is a journalist covering a story on the asylum bakery, but is really there to figure out just what the authorities at Briarcliff are hiding. She wants to meet Bloody Face, she tells Sister Jude. Bloody Face, a man who kills and dresses in the skin of his victims ala Hannibal Lecter, turns out to be the convicted, and wrongly accused, Kit Walker. He’s admitted, sedated, and it’s all very 1960s crazy house. Kit wakes, strapped to the bed, to find Sister Jude tormenting him about his alien sighting. "All monsters are human", she says, and there’s another amazing dialogue drop for the 2013 Emmys nomination package. She provokes, he spits, she whips. Later, in solitary confinement, Kit is visited by Grace, a patient who claims she was also locked up for a crime she didn’t commit.
Sister Eunice is crying. Sobbing like a child, in fact. Sister Jude will have none of it. Sister Eunice whimpers that a patient has died. The head-bitch-in-charge nun goes to see Dr. Arden, who apparently has something to do with the death. Sister Jude and Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) do not get along. Off plot topic, I would have liked to have seen Denis O’Hare return for the second series. I think he would have played this character well. But Cromwell, of Six Feet Under fame, is great, too. Back on topic. Sister Jude remarks that it’s suspicious that every patient who dies under Arden’s supervision does not have family, and thus, no one to ask questions. Where are the bodies? She asks. Make way for unexpected flashbacks of human flesh being fed to patients, accompanied by violin screeches. It’s at this point that we learn that Lange doesn’t play the villain after all. She genuinely cares about her patients. And in a few scenes time, we’ll learn just what’s underneath that habit.
The next scene finds Lana at home, plotting with her schoolteacher girlfriend (Clea DuVall) about how she’s going to get into the asylum and write the shocking story she knows is there waiting to be told. She wants a Pulitzer Prize. She wants justice. The girlfriend is supportive. Lana moves to kiss her, but the blinds are up and the girlfriend doesn’t want to put her job as a schoolteacher at risk.
Meanwhile, Sister Jude is having dinner with the Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes). She likes him. Too much. It’s here that we’re introduced to Sister Jude’s penchant for red lingerie and perfume in a flashback. Well, well. They didn’t touch on this in Sister Act or Doubt. Innovative! At dinner, Sister Jude fantasises about the Monsignor in a sequence that seems to represent all themes of this series: sexuality, religion and imprisonment.
Sister Eunice is walking in the woods late at night, and I’m surprised she’s not crying, because it seems to be her thing. Under the secret instruction of Dr. Arden (because Sister Jude hasn’t "won against the patriarchal hand of male" yet), Sister Jude carries two buckets of what I’m going to go out on a limb here (see what I did there?) and say is human flesh, and places them on the ground. She runs away from what just seems like the camera man chasing Lily Rabe. But the music is telling us it’s some kind of deformed monster that Dr. Arden has created, so we go with that. In her terror, Sister Eunice runs into Lana, who is taking a drag from her cigarette in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night like the cool, collected journalist that she is. Sister Eunice, seeming to know better for once, drags Lana toward Briarcliff, where she pulls her into (be a fine journalist like Lana and pull out your notes on that history lesson given earlier) "the death chute", which seems like any old tunnel. But we know better.
While all of the panicked running has been happening, intermittent shots of Kit being sedated and stolen away by Dr. Arden have been screened. Now, he’s in the doctor’s laboratory, and the doc’s showing him brains and talking about which part of the brain evil comes from. And he hopes that Kit doesn’t mind that he won’t use anaesthetic because it interferes with his readings.
Sister Eunice and Lana are creeping through the men’s ward after Sister Eunice begged Lana not to tell Sister Jude that she was out in the woods and Lana offered to keep her secret if she could take a look around. A patient flicks semen at Sister Eunice in a nod to Silence of the Lambs. Traumatised, Sister Eunice cries and runs off, leaving Lana alone. Something is about to go down.
Sister Jude is coming. Lana hides in an empty cell. Violins. A single flashlight. It’s almost as suspenseful as when the Von Trapps were hiding from the Nazi’s in the nunnery. However, this nun is not helping.
Back to Kit. He’s strapped down with a leather face mask. The doctor has a scalpel in hand, and when he slices just by Kit’s jugular vein, he pulls some sort of alien clip from Kit’s neck. More alien imagery. The alien plotline reads to me like an idea an intern threw in after a long night in the writer’s room. It may work. It may not. However, Ryan Murphy and Co. have the next season planned out, too, so I’m guessing that it’s either the intern’s fault, or a plot line that they’re very excited to write now, but they’ve resorted to developing it further next series in American Horror Story: Alien Invasion.
Lana’s walking down a hallway. She reaches the same door Adam Levine put his arm through. She looks inside. Is there anybody in there? She asks. Yes, Lana. There is something in there. A bloody, deformed hand reaches out and pulls her head in.
There’s a great, dramatic scene between Lange and Rabe. Their theatre backgrounds are notable in this scene. Flawless.
Back to Lana. When Lana wakes up, all body parts intact, she’s strapped to a bed and Sister Jude is looking over her.
Lana: You can’t keep me here. There are people who will come looking for me.
Sister Jude: Do you think so?
It turns out that, to save the reputation of the asylum, while Lana was sleeping, Sister Jude visited Lana’s girlfriend and demanded that she commit Lana, or face the exposure of their relationship and lose her job. With the form signed by the schoolteacher girlfriend, Lana’s officially a patient of Briarcliff now, and Sister Jude has great plans to "correct" her "perversions".
"Welcome to Briarcliff" sets up many questions and leaves them all unanswered. When Sister Jude unlocks the door to the room with the thing that keeps biting off limbs and grabbing faces, it’s empty but for Dr. Arden, who’s decided to do some spring cleaning. Something has been living in there, the scratches on the walls tell Sister Jude. Until next episode, we won’t find out anymore than that. In a smooth transition, we see Adam Levine, the newlywed husband from the opening scene, lying on the floor and bleeding to death. His wife has gone to get help. She’s running down the stairway to heaven and through the death chute. She shines her flashlight. And standing there, at the end of the hall, is Bloody Face. Not Kit, but another kind of monster altogether.
But in keeping with the psychological terror aspect of this season, everyone appears to be human, whether that be dead or alive or in the form of Bloody Face. And disregarding aliens or judging gods or deformed monsters in the woods, the fact that each character is human is horrific in itself.
|FIND YOUR GEEK RATING
out of 10