The continuing adventures of our marathon man: he’s been known to swallow a box set whole
this month: AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE
AFTER GHOSTS, ASYLUMS, witches, freak shows and haunted hotels, the latest season of anthology series American Horror Story was hyped by its showrunner Ryan Murphy as a radical rebirth. It sounded like pre-release puff. In some ways, it’s business as usual. Keeping with the show’s tradition, Season 6 is inspired by true events — in this case, the Roanoke New World colony that mysteriously evaporated in the 1590s. What’s rogue is the format: the series unravels as a spot-on Paranormal Witness spoof.
To North Carolina then, where married couple Shelby and Matt Miller (Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr) are happily settling into their lovely new home that looks as welcoming as an abattoir. When sister-in-law Lee (Angela Bassett) comes to visit, the three fall victim to a relentless supernatural blitzkrieg. Cue narrative ping-pong as the plot bounces between the talking head victims (André Holland, Lily Rabe, Adina Porter) and their re-enacting counterparts. The first episode hits the ground screaming: there’s a hot-tub ghost attack, the sky raining teeth and homicidal pig-men (swine-otaurs are the show’s recurring bogeymen). By episode two, the series’ villain emerges from the woods — Kathy Bates’ Butcher, a cleaver-wielding Roanoke phantom with a spirit-army of New World zombies.
This is horror played at warp-speed — each episode comes pre-loaded with six jump-scares and three reveals. Just when you think you know where it’s heading, the show lobs in psycho ghost nurses or a cannibal clan. It’s a bit like watching a campfire ghost story burst into a wildfire but the show does take time to develop its mythology. ‘Chapter Four’, the Explainer Episode, links its random horrors into a surprisingly coherent pagan legend involving druids, Blood Moons and a human-sacrifice cult. (The show’s biggest mystery, Bates’ pigeon-through-a-mangle accent, is never explained. Where’s she from? Derby? Dublin? Dundee? Dartford? All of them?)
The mock-doc style is on-the-nose but ace, the gore splashy but what makes this such a riot are the brash steals: Amityville, Hostel, Blair Witch, Poltergeist, and Texas Chainsaw and many more are all ransacked. This is jukebox horror, and fabulously brazen. When the Millers abruptly escape with five episodes left, you’re wondering: where’s there to go?
The solution has my head rotating like an owl on a fidget spinner. In the unreal real world, the show’s become such a ratings hit the channel launches a follow-up series. “Like Big Brother with scares!” screams the producer as the actors playing the re-enactors and the original victims are moved into the actual haunted house, hoping to capture the real Roanoke ghouls on camera. In other words, mid-season, the show drops a meta-ton bomb, and it’s absolutely nuts. Still, at this point I’m experiencing some weird aural delirium. What are those hideous chewing noises? Turns out it’s the sound of a show eating itself to death. Having written itself into a corner, there’s nowhere to go but headbutt itself against the wall, duplicating the same old scares from a new POV perspective. Cuba Gooding Jr is a self-mocking blast as an ego-puffed actor but the show collapses into a shapeless mess of a hide-and-shriek, cruelly stretched out for four, knackering episodes.
By the time the finale lands, Adina Porter’s lone survivor is flung into a true-crime take-off, an Oprah parody then a Ghost Hunters spoof, meaning we’re now inside a show-within-a-showwithin-a-show-within-a-show-within-a-show. Head hurting? Mine too, after 10 episodes. If you follow a climax with a climax then another climax, you end up with an anti-climax, which is exactly where the slot-filling epilogue ends up. The ballsy move ends up utter meta-bollocks, but you can’t ever accuse the show of playing safe.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE IS OUT ON 5 OCTOBER ON DVD AND BLU-RAY