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Review: American Horror Story: Freak Show Is Strangely Enthralling

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Review: American Horror Story: Freak Show Is Strangely Enthralling

I’ve never seen American Horror Story before and since each season is a self-contained story I decided to watch the fourth one first as it sounded the most interesting. I also wanted to start on the season that I assumed was the worst. That way the show can only get better. Well if this is the worst AHS has to offer then the rest must be just rays of pure euphoria being pumped into my eyes through the TV screen.

Freak Show achieves everything I could want in a horror series…except be scary. It’s weird, violent and the characters are extremely compelling. It’s the kind of show you can cozily get lost in. Even as deformed dirty clowns stab teenagers to death.

The closest film I could compare it to in terms of tone is Rob Zombie’s carnivalesque House of 1000 Corpses. Though the most obvious and overtly referenced movie is Todd Browing’s 1932 classic Freaks. Like Freaks, AHS casts real life deformed actors and people of unusual appearance. They commingle with a star cast including Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange to create a flawless ensemble. What surprised me most was that the unknown cast members (some of them acting for the first time) all gave brilliant and sometimes heartbreaking performances.

Even though there are lobster boys, three breasted hermaphrodites and amputee ex prostitute Marlene Dietrich impersonators everything seems pretty grounded in a fixed reality. That is until the episode “Edward Mordrake”. In this two parter a Victorian ghost visits the carnival on Halloween night and demands to know the backstory of every freak. We’re treated to several expositional flashbacks that allow us to get to know the main and background characters better. It’s so ridiculous it shouldn’t work. But it does.

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The main story flows so well and the pacing is constantly moving forward. Then out of nowhere the episode “Orphans” comes on telling yet another minor character’s backstory. Focusing on pinhead Pepper it shows us how she came to the freak show and where she’ll end up in the future. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I was expecting this show to scare me, not make me bawl my eyes out.

The final episode was like someone creating a fantastical world out of Lego and then smashing it to pieces. It felt like the writers got so caught up in the story that they forgot they only have 13 episodes so decided to end it in quite a rushed and annoyingly unsatisfying way. Maybe it’s just me being bitter that the story couldn’t go on further but much of the finale felt mediocre and out of place compared to what came before it.

The characters change quite suddenly in the final episodes. They all become much more bloodthirsty. Suddenly these people we’ve been following and learning so much about (and care about) turn into cleaver wielding butchers. Weirdly this starts to happen when Neil Patrick Harris inexplicably shows up. It was a poor decision to introduce a fairly inconsequential and random character when everyone else has so little screen time left. Though he does add to the weird campy vibe.

Dandy, one of the main antagonists is one of the most irritating characters I’ve ever seen. I suppose that’s the point. But despite the increasingly awful things he does I didn’t feel much satisfaction in seeing things go wrong for him later in the show.

The victims in this story are usually totally innocent and defenceless. In a lot of horror they would be dehumanised and simply machete fodder. But we’re made to care for these people through hours of learning who they are. That’s what makes TV such a great medium for the genre. The prolonged screen time ups the stakes and the tension.

Just like a real freak show this season is strangely enthralling and one of the most unique things I’ve seen. I doubt the darker seasons of this anthology show will have the same fun eccentricity. There’s only one way to find out.

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