From True Blood’s vampire-werewolf-fairy love triangles to The Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic zombie assaults, right now, horror TV is diverse and it’s flourishing. But are any of the shows that filter their soap opera or action-adventure narratives through the horror lens genuinely scary? Two series, FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum and ABC’s 666 Park Avenue, premiered this fall with the express purpose of creeping the hell out of us every week. While both go about telling their chilling tales in ways that aren’t exactly groundbreaking, AHS: Asylum rises above most of its clichés – something that is primarily achieved through its relentless pacing and brutal imagery – where 666 Park Avenue is mired in flickering lights and seemingly portentous revelations.
AHS: Asylum is the second installment in what creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck are calling an anthology series. In terms of plot, then, it has nothing to do with the first season, which starred Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and Taissa Farmiga as a family living in the world’s most terrifying house. But fans of the first season needn’t worry because, when it comes to tone, the new story is just as unsettling and eerie and full of kink as its predecessor.
Transporting us to 1964, this twisted yarn – so far, featuring a vicious nun, a serial killer, a nymphomaniac, demonic possession, and aliens – is set in Briarcliff Manor, a Church-run institution for the criminally insane. Jessica Lange, who was also a part of the first-season cast, here, plays ruthless Sister Jude – with her thick Boston accent and wall of archaic spanking implements, she rules Briarcliff. The other major players in the asylum: sadistic but puritanical Dr. Arden (James Cromwell); Sister Jude’s superior, Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes); psychiatrist Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto); alleged serial killer Kit Walker (Evan Peters); and Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a perfectly sane journalist, looking to expose Briarcliff’s deplorable conditions who winds up being institutionalized after a devious scheme concocted by Sister Jude.
AHS: Asylum is disorienting with a demented, WTF, David Lynchian flare. There are basic shock scares (in a side story that takes place in the present, Jenna Dewan Tatum and Adam Levine play lovers pursued by mass murderer “Bloody Face” in what’s left of Briarcliff), but so much of this show is disturbing simply because it’s so mind-bogglingly bizarre. The blood, the terror, the fear, are all tinged with kitsch, and that combination gives birth to the kind of horror that doesn’t just give you a jolt – it crawls under your skin.
In the second episode, Dr. Arden goads Sister Jude’s innocent subordinate, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), into eating a candy apple, which she initially refuses, believing that consuming the sweet treat would be some kind of gateway sin. The moment is patently ridiculous (and an obvious reference to Adam and Eve), but Dr. Arden’s insistence that she taste the candy apple is so strange! With Cromwell’s perfect performance teetering between aggression and forced gentleness, this mundane exchange turns oddly suspenseful.
Also, it’s totally freaky.
Less freaky is 666 Park Avenue, which feels like a hybrid of The Devil’s Advocate, The Twilight Zone, and Melrose Place and has all of the thrills and twists of a Goosebumps book. The series is about the residents of the Drake, a swanky Manhattan apartment building owned by a devilish businessman named Gavin Doran (Terry O’Quinn) and his wife Olivia (Vanessa Williams), who honestly, at this point, is more like a prop than a character. In the pilot, Gavin hires fresh-faced couple Jane and Henry (Rachel Taylor and Dave Annable) to serve as building managers. Naturally, he keeps the fact that he’s completely evil to himself. See, Gavin makes dreams come true for a price. He’ll help residents achieve some goal (in a recent episode, he somehow facilitates a young woman’s transformation into the hard-hitting journalist that she’s always wanted to be) but the end result is usually death.
666 Park Avenue does a good job of setting up O’Quinn’s Gavin as an avuncular villain – his smile is inscrutable and, at the moment, the character bears watching even if the rest of the story isn’t as fascinating. The show is Coke Zero horror. You know, better than diet Coke but not quite as satisfying as real Coke. Instead of presenting viewers with spooky moments that actually feel spooky, it’s more about the idea of spookiness. In the premiere, Jane, an architecture enthusiast, is changing one of the building’s many flickering light bulbs, when a ghostly woman appears behind her, inching closer with every flicker of the light. By the time Jane turns around, the woman is gone. It’s clear that this scene is supposed to be creepy but it just isn’t – that sort of ghostly encounter has been as done to death as this pun.
The tame scares could be overlooked if 666 Park Avenue were at least a satisfying soap, but the non-supernatural plots (there’s a tiresome one involving a writer, his girlfriend, and a woman living in an adjacent apartment whom he ogles) become less interesting as the series moves forward.
666 Park Avenue is broadcast on a Disney-owned network, which probably limits how edgy the show is permitted to be. So, perhaps some concessions can be made. Even so, it’s AHS: Asylum that has more promise.