“AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW 401: Monsters Among Us” (Review)Home,Movies/TV,News,Reviews Samuel Zimmerman
There isn’t much room for normality in FREAK SHOW. There’s never been any in AMERICAN HORROR STORY, at all. Three seasons of fluctuating between unending ghoulishness and spritely trash, the delicious wrong of this anthology series has seen a few constants: a roving, dizzying, dazzling camera; bad bitches as played by Jessica Lange; and a thematic through-line of being ostracized. In its fourth season, the second of which is fully period-set, co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have dipped further back into an atmosphere of repression (1952), one that circles the free-flowing madhouse of a carnie sideshow full of freaks and outcasts and those unwelcome in ordinary society. It is perhaps AMERICAN HORROR STORY at its least subtle (that’s something!), and yet as season premiere “Monsters Among Us” unfolds, also its most focused.
It’s difficult to recall an AMERICAN HORROR STORY camera ever having as much purpose as director Ryan Murphy’s in “Monsters Among Us.” Ever playful, Murphy’s visuals are also concealing, revealing, contorting and telling. Murphy introduces us to the world as Elsa Mars (Lange) and her traveling freak show see it, and conversely, how the world sees them. Somewhere in the middle is our entrance, the first onscreen face and voice, Dot of Bette and Dot, the Siamese Sisters essayed by AHS regular and stellar performer Sarah Paulson.
Their introduction is the audience’s. Recruited into the freak show by Elsa, following the murder of their mother and a stint in the hospital, Bette and Dot are two heads of very two minds about it all. Bette longs for the outside world, for freedom and amusement. Dot, the curmudgeon of the conjoined, is repressed and repressing, telepathically telling her sister to cool it almost every step of the way—except, of course, in the case of matricide.
Murphy presents the conflict raging within Bette and Dot in most spectacular fashion. In their first major dialogue with Elsa, the director makes a great use of split screen—likely the best since Miguel Angel Vivas’ brutal thriller KIDNAPPED— explicitly visualizing Bette and Dot’s particular perspectives. Sometimes it’s the sisters as they look at Elsa, Bette eating up her gestures and gifts, while Dot stiffly keeps her eye on the whole picture. Others, it’s one sister and Elsa sharing the screen. Even without the split screen, Murphy will harshly cut one head from the frame in moments of opposition. They are as much apart as they are together.
In lensing the small town of Jupiter, Florida (a state that consistently reveals itself as a source for grotesque fascination), AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW is decidedly less conflicted. Only the freak show’s camp gets sweeping, empathetic establishing shots. Instead, the “normal” world is crafted as a pastel colored house of horrors. Wide lenses envelop and distort homes and diners, with townspeople painted as inhibited and upset, possibly by the funhouse mirror of society that the freak show offers. Sexual gratification for instance seems distinctly lacking, as housewives gather in a fucked up sort of Tupperware party to be penetrated by Evan Peters’ Lobster Boy hands. Their ultimate pleasure—and it looks ultimate—will be kept hidden, likely a point of shame.
Circling both Jupiter and the freak show is a hulking killer clown, who occupies his own, aggressive space and is weirdly (but refreshingly) the tamest aspect of the series so far. Though undoubtedly off-putting, a killer clown simply seems the low end of a warped totem when compared to, say, getting fingered by a Lobster Boy. Still, this clown with a supremely repugnant mouth piece gets a macabrely crafted lakeside murder, with wide lenses again distorting it all to a painterly, lurid landscape.
Presented so theatrically and so visually expressive, what would FREAK SHOW be without a taste of the show? “Monsters Among Us” climaxes with a ragtag musical production, the focal point being Lange’s German ex-pat cabaret singer anachronistically performing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” A light Wikipedia-ing of the song turns up Bowie’s interpretation, that of the surreal lyrics being a “sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.” The singer adds, “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”
With a strong current of showbiz and its correlation with the carnies running throughout the FREAK SHOW premiere, it’s easy to see much of the show’s ensemble feels the same. Bette and Dot wanted out of the house, Lobster Boy Jimmy Darling wants out of the tent, Elsa Mars wants to be a star and they’re all stuck in the same reality, one where shame and exclusion is offset by a makeshift freak family tended to by Kathy Bates’ bearded lady doing her best Mira Sorvino*. By episode’s end, Bette and even a bit of Dot come to see the benefit of this soft-focused Grand Guignol. I was already on board.
*If you’ve an urge to revisit ROMY AND MICHELE… after, that’s why.