Although there have been successful horror anthologies, episodic television has a frightening track record with the genre, largely because suspense is so difficult to sustain. Yet given its theatrical popularity and “The Walking Dead’s” success, it makes sense for somebody like FX to try. Enter “American Horror Story,” a stab (heh heh), from “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, at recycling jump-out-at-you conventions, which in its own way displays excesses similar to later seasons of Murphy’s signature FX offering, “Nip/Tuck.” The creative team’s fondness for the material appears unquestionable; whether they can exorcise what ails their show remains the real mystery.
Of course, for such a series to work (and past attempts, like CBS’ “American Gothic,” didn’t), there has to be a solid character foundation. In this case, it’s the Harmon family: Seeking to save a marriage fractured by a miscarriage and infidelity, psychologist Ben (Dylan McDermott), wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and bratty teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) head West, from Boston to L.A.
Why is this old house they’ve found so cheap? Because a murder-suicide occurred in the basement, the realtor explains. But hey, the place is half the price of other homes in the neighborhood, and for that money they’d have to live in the valley — which is really scary.
So in they move, only to be warned by their neighbor with Down’s syndrome (Jamie Brewer), “You are going to die in there” — which, in its vague echoes of lines from “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist II,” represents the first homage of many in Murphy and Falchuk’s script.
The main problem with a haunted-house series is making things scary without becoming so alarming the family flees screaming into the night in episode one. A second hour, however, rather than offering clarity or reassurance, only reinforces these doubts.
Creatively unleashed, the producers have concocted a sure-to-be-polarizing introduction that’s a truly weird, David Lynch-style experience — complete with bondage outfits, satanic images and the creepiest opening-title sequence ever.
Beyond the central family, everyone seems to have checked in from “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel — from the wild-eyed former actress next door (Jessica Lange, oddly channeling her work in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) to the spooky maid who, in the pilot’s niftiest device, appears one way (Frances Conroy) to Vivien and another (Alexandra Breckenridge) to Ben.
“AHS” derives inspiration from so many horror films there’s some fun in simply identifying those moments. But there’s also a surreal quality that feels wildly overdone — and periodically risks tumbling from inspiring fright into inducing giggles.
Britton is a strong yet vulnerable lead, and the couple’s marital woes feed into the tumult of their unsettling surroundings. By contrast, the daughter’s troubles fitting in at her new school and interaction with a disturbed boy feel like unpleasant dead ends.
For FX, there’s merit in trying to elevate the storytelling level in modern horror films from what has too often devolved into torture porn and splatter. And as a proliferation of reality TV programs demonstrate, people still love ghost stories.
“Horror Story’s” spirit-guides Murphy and Falchuk certainly silenced naysayers with “Glee.” Nevertheless, any more missteps and this wispy specter will descend the stairway to silliness — at which point, it’ll be hard to prevent the fat lady from singing.