As a horror fan, my initial reaction to hearing Glee creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s next project would be a horror-themed series was something along the lines of, “Um, what?” Of course, the first season premiered to some surprisingly positive reviews, appeasing both horror fans and critics alike, not only creating a provocatively creepy vibe, but also presenting a story that kept viewers on edge week to week. That was Season 1 though – Season 2 is a completely different story.
No, seriously. American Horror Story: Asylum tells a completely unrelated story to the original season, setting up the anthology collection mentality that Season 3 would follow. Numerous cast members returned and Falchuk and Murphy certainly attempted to push boundaries once again – but this maddening story of psychological horror lacked the wit and flowing storytelling that made American Horror Story‘s inaugural season such a smash-hit.
Season 2 of American Horror Story takes us to Briarcliff, a religiously run mental institution under the care of Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) and Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange). Taking place in the 1960s, Briarcliff’s methods are less than acceptable, holding patients in terrible conditions and exposing them to physical punishment in the form of lashings and electroshock therapy. Journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) attempts to expose all the horrors at Briarcliff, including the secret projects of Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), as well as conduct a personal interview with an apparent serial killer, Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is being held at the institution. Unfortunately, Lana ends up being held captive at the asylum, and so starts the twisted journey into Briarcliff’s unknown history.
While Briarcliff most certainly is a home to the psychologically jarring, utterly disturbing, unnervingly demented, and murderously psychotic, the series as a whole presents far too many different characters and personal stories to focus on one season-driving plot. In one single season we’re exposed to alien abductions, serial killers, exorcisms, possessions, cannibal monsters, Frankenstein-like creatures, Nazis, sexual deviants, religious corruption, necrophilia – honestly, if there’s a horror genre trope, it’s used in American Horror Story: Asylum. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a television series, so there’s plenty of room for all these tonal twists and turns, but the entire season becomes extremely overwhelming at times, and certain arcs are left completely open – like specific stories were just a sick waste of time.
Poor James Cromwell suffers the weakest story of all when he should have been the most interesting. Playing the maniacal Dr. Arden, Cromwell first asserts himself as the show’s stand-out villain, but as time goes on, his character arc starts to play towards a more sympathetic eye. Surely his “procedures” are questionable, still believing in the archaic practice of lobotomization (even for the 60s), and the woodland creatures he assuredly created most definitely paint Arden as a definite mad scientist, but everything is lost once Sister Mary Eunice (in her altered state) starts to act like Arden’s puppeteer.
Asylum builds up Arden as a surgical assassin, slicing and dicing his way through Briarcliff’s more unlucky patients, even delving into a possible Nazi background, but then absolutely abandons all momentum in favor of his submissive relationship with Sister Mary Eunice. Those monsters he was feeding, the atrocities he really committed in his youth, his experiments – nothing is achieved except a simple realization that Arden is a “not-too-nice man” who becomes haunted by his past. Utterly anticlimactic and confusingly frustrating – what a shame. Everything that’s teased involving Arden essentially goes nowhere, displaying one of the many pain points of American Horror Story: Asylum. Trust me, Arden is just one example.
Not all the arcs fell flat though (thankfully), and watching Jessica Lange play the roller coaster ride that is Sister Jude Martin is not only enticing horror showmanship, but spectacularly watchable mainstream television. It’s not that the likes of Evan Peters and Zachary Quinto weren’t equally watchable, but Lange’s commanding on-screen presence turns Sister Jude Martin into the most memorable character amidst American Horror Story: Asylum. Lange’s road to salvation starts with her running Briarcliff with an iron, stern fist, but then as her intentions start to shift, Sister Jude becomes a victim herself. Lange not only has to inspire fear, but she has to inspire hope as the season presses on with the ever-changing list of protagonists. She starts out perfectly sane, with a bit of a mean streak none the less, but slowly slips helplessly into insanity through an existence full of mystery, corruption, and devilish influences. Jessica Lange is able to atone for some of American Horror Story: Asylum‘s numerous sins, corralling this scatter-brained project somewhat.
Falchuk and Murphy’s second spooky season just didn’t have the same searing effect this time around though, and couldn’t live up to such high sequel expectations. While American Horror Story was genuinely creepy, had legitimate scares, and was more straight horror, Asylum‘s shocking moments seemed horribly forced, and never once did I actually find myself overcome with fear. Asylum was bizarre for the sake of making us gasp, and ignored previous story material in the process. Story arcs come to a screeching halt as soon as our script attempts to wrap the season up, as characters make their episodic exit leaving more questions than before. American Horror Story: Asylum is no doubt an ambitious attempt to haunt television viewers, more so than some other (undead) horror TV shows, but for all intents and purposes, Asylum straps us down and dares to confidently drive us mad – but its methods become repetitive, far too over-complicated, and numbingly messy.
Watching the Blu-Ray transfer didn’t help improve the experience much either, as I didn’t notice a significantly crisper picture in every single scene. Sure, during the finale, when we see Sarah Paulson wearing a heavy coating of makeup to advance her age years beyond, every wrinkle and age mark visibly shines, but other moments had me completely forgetting my Blu-Ray player was even on. Granted, I watch television in full HD, so my picture quality is usually solid, but this Blu-Ray release doesn’t make American Horror Story: Asylum any more physically captivating. Audible cues that set up the very few “scares” present play wonderfully clear, as the audio transfer is very solid, but comparing the visuals to other Blu-Ray quality television shows I’ve watched, this transfer is unfortunately nothing hauntingly noteworthy.
As for our special features, this is what we’re given:
- The Orderly
- What Is American Horror Story: Asylum?
- Welcome To Briarcliff Manor
- The Creatures
- Deleted Scenes
Adding about 70 minutes worth of extra content, these special features will only be enjoyed by true American Horror Story fans, filled with nothing more than typical cast interviews and behind the scenes looks – aside from “The Orderly.” Attempting to scare us with a fake featurette, this short appears to be nothing but an interview with the titular orderly, but turns into a way to cash-in on Bloody Face one more time. The rest of the featurettes give us exclusive looks at the production (“What Is American Horror Story: Asylum?”), set design (“Welcome To Briarcliff Manor”), and the special effects (“The Creatures”).
Honestly, you could waste your time on a much worse series, and I don’t exactly regret spending an entire weekend watching American Horror Story: Asylum, but it’s certainly the weakest effort in this creepy series (which is now on Season 3). Our time spent at Briarcliff becomes addicting because we’re curious to discover what creatures and horrors are still waiting to test our nerves, but as introductions begin to outweigh goodbyes, it’s hard to keep recurring abductions and random murders from jumbling together. Trust me, there were times I felt I needed a straight jacket and some padded walls myself just trying to keep up with Arden’s experiments, Jude’s lashings, Mary Eunice’s sinful acceptance, Thredson’s guilty pleasures, Kit’s alien encounters, Grace’s alien encounters, Alma’s existence, Arden’s clouding judgement – you get the idea.
American Horror Story: Asylum is filled with plenty of dark secrets, sinister twists, and unexpected turns - but unfortunately the one thing this psychologically invading season lacks is thoughtful explanation.