‘American Horror Story’s Freak Show

AmHorrorStoryOld carnival freak shows are the natural stuff of horror so it was only a matter of time before “American Freak Show” (FX, 10 p.m.), which previously visited haunted houses, asylums and voodoo corners of New Orleans, would land there.

Though its colors are rich and dustily vivid, a fading circus striving to succeed in the wilds of rural Florida, it brings to mind TV’s last such setting for a series, HBO’s “Carnivale.”

Once more, “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy brings in many of the cast members he had playing completely different roles in past seasons of the anthology, in a way by now that seems less a Mercury Theatre repertoire company than it seems lazy casting.

Jessica Lange’s roles are getting more and more lurid; he’s using her as other directors exploited late period Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Sarah Paulson is approaching the same status by now.

Here, Lange is using an extreme German accent like a warped Marlene Deitrich in Cruella deVille garb. She’s running a circus that’s largely a Freak Show, one that’s full of every example of “nature’s mistakes” required.

There’s a chicken-chomping geek, a couple of easily excitable microcephalics, an impossibly tall woman and an impossibly small one; a woman whose body ends at the belly and gets around on her hands; another tattooed man whose hands and arms are not fully formed at all.

Such “freaks” aroused fascination in the days of the traveling tent shows and they continue to do so to some degree today – whole reality series are devoted to little people and their doings.

But a wide audience was offended by such exploitation of these souls – under the tent or on film. Hence, Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks” was banned for decades in the UK. It’s been back for a while now, of course, inspiring Ramones songs and the Broadway musical “Side Show.”

As in any incarnation of freak show, however, these people continue to be exploited no matter the implied message of the narrative (whether we begin to see them as people, or see how they band together to defeat the unfeeling “normal” people). The fact is, they aren’t credited, either on film or in the lavish 72-page, hardback presskit (in which we do learn the name of the prop master and grip.).

No, the main attention goes to the Hollywood stars portraying freaks through extensive makeup and effects. Kathy Bates, who gets a more unfortunate role each season, is the bearded lady with an undetermined accent; Angela Bassett is the three breasted woman (making you think that the internet hoax of a similarly appended woman is part of the FX marketing blitz); she debuts in episode two with strong man Michael Chiklis.

Jimmy Darling, who has been on every season of “American Horror Story” and has been the worst thing about the show each time, as a Lobster Boy who makes extra money giving ladies a hand at lurid Tupperware parties, something I would wager is not grounded in history.

But it is Sarah Paulson who is the main attraction as a Siamese Twin that is actually more like the central creature in “The Thing with Two Heads” with Rosey Grier and Ray Milland. It’s a triumph of special effects, with the two heads from the same neck generally seamless, though each head, with their distinct personalities, is often seen isolated, at severe angle (likewise, their points of view are presented side by side in split screen in the first episode – something dropped altogether by episode two).

As interesting as this impossible person is, the first thing talent scout Lange asks them is about their sexual habits – once more Murphy is trying to push buttons and shove it in our face, all the time furthering the worst stereotypes about people with deformities: They’re hyper sexualized.

People are scared of the two-headed woman, but like the other freak show cast members, there is no particular reason to be (though there is a bit of matricide to account for).

There is menace amok though, and it is in the figure of a totally unrelated Klassic Killer Klown, in the manner of Stephen King’s Pennywise or John Wayne Gacy, who says nothing but stabs, slices, dices and decapitates, all while wearing a giant, Joker-sized toothy smile as a mask – yanking the show’s design joltingly from the 1950s to the early 1990s (even as it provides an instant and enduring Halloween costume idea).

With a filthy costume and horn-like tufts of hair, he’s a crazed killer on the loose, who also captures and cages some victims. And so far his rampage goes unchecked, though Frances Conroy’s exaggerated socialite character employs the clown to entertain her bored adult child.

The unnamed (and generally unexplained) character’s 1990s crazy clown grin is not even as weird as Murphy’s song choices in the series. While designers are mostly careful to replicate every detail of a spooky 1950s carnival, he has Lange sing David Bowie’s “Live on Mars?” of all things (yes, it mentions freak shows but it also takes a viewer out of the meticulous period piece in a way far more jolting than, say, Cliff Martinez electronic music animated the turn of the century action on “The Knick”).

And in episode two, what does two-headed Paulson sing but Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” for crying out loud. And what is the reaction of the crowd to this “Glee” via geeks? Something invented in the 80s: crowd-surfing!

Murphy is less interested in creating a sustained mood or coherent narrative than he is in dialing up the lurid and sexual, playing whatever songs he wants and overheating the whole thing with endless wide angle tracking shots. I suppose if he wanted to put in a freak orgy, he’d do that too (oh yeah, that also happens in episode two).

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