One of the creepiest and most bizarre series ever broadcast on American television, American Horror Story is in many ways a true original. A ghost story of mammoth proportions spread out over twelve unsettling and alternately ghastly and melancholy episodes, the series works its spell quite hypnotically teasing its audience with visual and verbal clues as the real story of an unhappy house and its unique occupants is offered to the viewers in tantalizing, sometimes terrifying tidbits.
American Horror Story: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)
Directed by Ryan Murphy et al
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 532 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 49.98
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Review Date: September 28, 2012
With the producers deciding that the show would be better fashioned as a miniseries and thus ending with its last episode (only to start up again next season with a new story though with some returning cast members playing different roles), American Horror Story racked up seventeen Emmy Award nominations for its first season. Its uniqueness makes it easy to understand why Academy members were so taken with it. It’s in essence a haunted house saga, but the producers take their sweet time in doling out information. In fact, the series has a Rubik’s cube approach to storytelling. Though we have a central story, the real mysteries of the “Murder House” where the bulk of the series occurs are parceled out in small chunks and not in linear fashion either. Every episode begins with a flashback and putting them together helps the viewer construct the astonishing backstory of misery and murder contained in this frightening domicile.
The core story involves the wretchedly unhappy Harmon family. Psychiatrist Ben (Dylan McDermott) was discovered by wife Vivien (Connie Britton) having sex with one of his young students (recurring guest star Kate Mara), and in order to save their marriage, they’ve left Boston and moved to Los Angeles into a Victorian mansion which they could get cheaply because it was the scene of a gruesome murder-suicide some years previous. With them comes their disturbed teenaged daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) who’s prone to cutting herself and withdrawing to her room for long periods of time. From the moment they arrive and are warned by the disturbing child from next door Adelaide Langdon (Jamie Brewer) that they will die in the house, there’s never a moment that’s not unsettling or downright spooky. The house comes with its own resident maid Moira, but the viewer is alerted immediately that something’s off with her since she appears elderly (in the person of Frances Conroy) to Vivien and in the full blush of tantalizing young womanhood (played by Alexandra Breckenridge) to Ben. And Adelaide’s mother Constance (Jessica Lange in an Emmy-winning supporting turn) obviously knows a great deal more about the house than she lets on at the beginning. As additional episodes play, we learn as much about Constance and her ties to the house as we do all of the other past occupants who all had their own turns at dealing with the evils that the house contains.
To say more would spoil the many surprises, shocks, and scares that await the viewer of this imaginative and well played little fright factory, but be certain that the many mysteries that the house holds (something unnaturally evil living in the basement, a rubber suited figure who makes sporadic appearances, bottles and jars of unsettling contents, a string of very disturbed patients for Dr. Harmon) are all eventually spelled out by the writing staff, and that violence, while certainly present, is not always as bloodcurdling as one might think from the creepy main titles or the number of unpleasant deaths which are spoken of throughout the run of the show (violence does escalate as the series runs, so those who are squeamish may have to look away occasionally).
The four central actors Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, and Taissa Farmiga along with Evan Peters as a particularly disturbed young patient of Dr. Harmon, Denis O’Hare as a fire-scarred survivor who makes a pest of himself throughout much of the series, Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge alternating as the maid, and recurring guest stars Lily Rabe and Matt Ross (as the original owners of the house), Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears (as the couple who occupied it previously to the Harmons), and Christine Estabrook and Morris Chestnut as the too-knowing real estate agent and a friendly security guard respectively all do first class jobs acting these very demanding parts.
Here are the twelve episodes which make up season one of the series and contained on three discs in this Blu-ray set:
1 – Pilot
2 – Home Invasion
3 – Murder House
4 – Halloween, Pt. 1
5 – Halloween, Pt. 2
6 – Piggy, Piggy (the most genuinely frightening of the dozen episodes)
7 – Open House
8 – Rubber Man
9 – Spooky Little Girl (the legendary Black Dahlia gets effectively worked into the story)
10 – Smoldering Children
11 – Birth
12 – Afterbirth
The original widescreen television aspect ratio of 1.78:1 is faithfully rendered in these 1080p transfers using the AVC codec. Color is muted throughout the twelve episodes (a blessing sometimes when an episode is particularly bloody), but it’s consistently rendered throughout the run of the series. Sharpness is outstanding except when things go deliberately soft and dreamy. Black levels, very important in a show which often uses shadows to its benefit, are excellent. Each episode has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix works its effective spell throughout the run of the series though one may find that the rear channels aren’t used quite as imaginatively as the front soundstage in many of the shows. Music plays a crucial part in several “boo” moments, and you’ll also recognize legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack music from Vertigo and Psycho used in key scenes in the first two episodes. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and is always clearly heard in the center channel. The LFE channel is used quite well to keep a low, rumbling bass going through various episodes to maximize tension.
The audio commentary for the pilot episode is by co-creator/director Ryan Murphy. He talks intelligently about his aims for the series and covers quite a bit of territory not just for the pilot but for the entire miniseries. First time viewers to the show are warned, however, that this commentary should not be played until you have viewed the entire season. Murphy gives away many surprises and reveals many secrets in discussing the show, and your enjoyment will be lessened to have the revelations spoiled too soon.
All of the video features are presented in 1080p.
“The Murder House presented by Eternal Darkness Tours of Hollywood” takes the recurring “Murder House” bus tour and brings them inside the house where the tour guide (played by David Anthony Higgins) briefly summarizes (with clips from the show) all of the family murders that occur during the run of the season. This runs 6 ½ minutes.
“Behind the Fright: The Making of American Horror Story” has co-creator Brad Falchuk, series co-stars Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Denis O'Hare, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, and Alexandra Breckenridge along with the show’s costume designer, production designer, head make-up artist, and special effects coordinator all discuss making the series. It runs 24 ½ minutes.
“Overture to Horror: Creating the Title Sequence” introduces us to three principal factors in the chilling opening title sequence: designer Kyle Cooper (who did the main titles for Se7en) and composers Cesar Davila-Irizarry and Charlie Clouser. This runs 9 ¼ minutes.
“Out of the Shadows: Meet the House Ghosts” is a 15 ¼-minute set of interviews with many of the actors who play ghosts throughout the season: Frances Conroy, Alexandra Breckenridge, Kate Mara, the Schultz twins, Lily Rabe, Matt Ross, Azura Skye, Michael Gruziadei, Ashley Rickards, Jordan David, Brando Eaton, Evan Peters, and Teddy Sears.
The discs contain promo trailers for Sons of Anarchy and the FX drama slate of shows.
4/5 (not an average)
American Horror Story earned seventeen Emmy nominations for its initial season. The show’s effective blend of dysfunctional family drama amid the paranormal surroundings of its setting make for a unique and powerful television series. For those in the mood for some serious shudders, the season set is definitely recommended.