American Horror Story returns next week with its 10th season, Double Feature—good news for fans who’ve been longing for its return, especially since it looks to be a particularly juicy season (all hail Sarah Paulson!). But you don’t have to already be a fan or more than passingly familiar with the series to enjoy American Horror Stories, the spin-off anthology series from AHS co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that wraps up its first seven-episode installment tonight.
I’m not going to lie—I’d been putting off watching American Horror Stories, despite the fact that I am a fan of American Horror Story. There’s just... so much TV to stream these days that I kind of forgot about it, and I suspect I’m not the only person who feels that way sometimes. But it’s well worth carving out some time for this fun, violent, and often salacious series, which gives you all the risqué fun of American Horror Story—but parceled out into smaller chunks that maybe couldn’t sustain an entire season of TV, but are perfect for a story that needs just around 45 minutes to get its point across.
The big exception to this is the first pair of episodes—since they’re a two-parter, “Rubber(wo)Man Part One” and “Rubber(wom)Man Part Two.” They’re also the ones most closely tied to American Horror Story, since they’re set in season one’s iconic Murder House and feature, as the title might suggest, the original show’s infamous Rubber Man. But even with those links, the script is careful to give enough backstory about the house’s terrifying past that even casual viewers will understand the tremendously bad vibes emanating from it.
Of course, that doesn’t deter married couple Michael (Matt Bomer, one of several American Horror Story regulars to pop up in the American Horror Stories cast) and Troy (Gavin Creel) from buying the place with intentions of fixing it up and opening a “haunted B&B” that’ll cash in on its dicey reputation, much to the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, Scarlett (The Vast of Night’s Sierra McCormick), who calls the place “Amityville Horror on crystal meth.” The family soon learns that the Murder House will not be so easily tamed, and Scarlett—who already had a burgeoning interest in S&M—swiftly finds herself intimately entangled with its legend.
These episodes feature intriguing second-generation stunt casting (Paris Jackson, Michael’s daughter, plays one of Scarlett’s mean-girl classmates; Kaia Gerber, who’s a dead ringer for her mother, Cindy Crawford, also has a key role), an impressively raw take on teenage bullying, some startling death scenes, and also—in true AHS fashion—up-to-the-minute cultural and pop culture references, not to mention plenty of surreal humor. The arcs of Scarlett and company required two episodes to fill (and probably more; according to Murphy, tonight’s finale will return to the Murder House). But the rest of American Horror Stories have all been (apparently) self-contained, and none have made overt references to the overarching American Horror Story lore.
All four start with fairly basic plots that horror fans in general will recognize—a cursed movie (“Drive In”), a woman who fears dark forces are after her baby (“BA’AL”), the deadly side of social media (“The Naughty List”), and the perils of the deep woods (“Feral”)—but end up layering that familiarity into worlds that feel like our own, but are instead filled with gut-wrenchingly freaky twists. They’re also very well-cast, especially Billie Lourd as a new mom on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Danny Trejo as horror’s latest incarnation of evil Santa Claus.
Some of these entries are more effective than others—“Drive In” owes so much to John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns” that it can’t be a coincidence that frequent Carpenter leading lady Adrienne Barbeau has a role in it. But they’re all energetic and entertaining, telling separate stories that nonetheless cohere with American Horror Story’s in-your-face approach to sex and gore. And it’s worth noting this isn’t The Twilight Zone or even Shudder’s excellent Creepshow (speaking of Barbeau), which tend to build their stories around characters who need to be taught a lesson or handed down some kind of comeuppance. “The Naughty List” does take a particularly ruthless approach to punishing the odious social-media stars who populate its story, and American Horror Stories absolutely loves to drop surprises in the final moments of its episodes. But this show isn’t piloted by a standard-issue moral compass; much like American Horror Story, American Horror Stories is mostly just determined to shock you. Gleefully. And most of the time, it succeeds.
“Game Over,” the season finale of American Horror Stories, streams today on FX on Hulu. (Last week, Murphy tweeted it’s been renewed for a second season.) American Horror Story: Double Feature premieres August 25 on FX, with episodes hitting Hulu the next day.
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