BINGE­WATCH

The con­tin­u­ing ad­ven­tures of our marathon man: he’s been known to swal­low a box set whole

Empire (Australasia) - - Review - WORDS SI­MON CROOK IL­LUS­TRA­TION PETER STRAIN

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

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