American Horror Story: Asylum transcends the horror genre with an authentic unique tale of terror and dread.
The second season of American Horror Story is titled Asylum and addresses another well-known horror trope. But just like the first season it’s about much more than a haunted asylum full of madness. It starts out with many storylines, which can be a bit confusing, but in the end it all comes together in a very well-crafted and smart way.
We are taken back to the sixties, where asylums didn’t have a good reputation. But if you think the asylum is bad and dangerous, there’s also a serial killer on the loose, a psychiatrist who wants to cure a lesbian, a mad scientist who performs gruesome experiments, aliens who abduct people, demonic possession and catholicism going extreme. It sounds like an odd mix, but is anything but and turns out to be a brilliant masterpiece of horror.
This second season consists of 13 episodes with each a duration of 39-63 minutes. It has a big story arc with multiple themes and different storylines that all comes together to create an enthralling and compelling story full of all sorts of horror.
It’s 1962 when Kit Walker and Alma are happily married. But he is white and she is black and such a marriage wasn’t accepted yet. They endure a lot of harassment, but when one night a bright light shines on their house, Alma is abducted. Meanwhile a serial killer, Bloody Face roams the town and Kit is being accused of the murder of his wife and other women.
Kit is transported to an asylum Briarcliff after he was declared insane. There, Monsignor Timothy Howard and Sister Jude are in charge and rule with firm hand, while Dr Arthur Arden can secretly perform his experiments on the patients which he started in the war for the nazi’s.
But a journalist Lana Winters believes Kit is innocent and wants to investigate the malpractice of Briarcliff, while her lover girlfriend also gets brutally murdered by Bloody Face.
Psychiatrist Oliver Thredson has to examine Kit if he really can plea for insanity or if he’s just a plain killer. While Lana gets too close to the truth she’s committed too and has to work together with Kit and the other patients to escape and find the real killer and to take down Briarcliff.
Why you should watch it
Asylum is a very full season and a lot is going on with a lot of different characters with each their own personal story. While it’s about aliens, a mad scientist, demons, religion, a serial killer and social issues like racism and homosexuality, it’s all handled with great care and each theme and each character gets the time it or they need to fully develop within the story. That is a great feat that makes this season an outstanding one.
Each character is fully explored and intertwined with the different storylines and with each other and with the themes. On paper all these different storylines and horror tropes can feel bit silly but it’s anything but. It’s a very emotionally charged story that dives deep into these tropes turning them into much more than just horror cliches. Even the storyline about the aliens, gets a heartwarming and heartbreaking ending that is all about forgiveness and love.
But before we get at that wonderful ending each character has to endure mental and psychical pain and has to overcome the evils of others. Dr Arden has a dark sinister past and continues on the same foot, experimenting on the helpless patients which results in horrifying and awful outcomes. The serial killer Bloody Face truly hates women. A demon possesses a very devout nun Sister Mary Eunice and turns her into a corrupt foul being. Sister Jude is sadistic but has a dark and tragic past of her own.
These evils and social evils like racism, sexism and homophobia are fought by Kit and Lana who fight for justice and equality. They get help from other patients, but never resort to evil means to defeat them. That makes it secretly an ultimate battle between good and evil. The themes are connected with this approach in a smart way. It’s about hope, love and faith (in each other) and forgiveness and redemption. It addresses the social themes that in those days were on the WHO list of mental illness like homosexuality and being with a person of another race was considered as a form of insanity and a foul thing. But also the subjugation of women and sexism are addressed in a strong way.
But that’s not all. The way the story is filmed is absolutely marvelous. The cinematography is beautiful and adds to a surreal sometimes even poetic atmosphere but also shows the harsh reality in a raw and crude way. The camera angles are brilliant as is the music, which all results in an exceptional watch.
While the different storylines and characters form the core and the heart of this season, there are also sort of monster-of-the-week episodes that are woven into the big story arc. This is mainly realized by new patients, like a woman who claims she’s Anne Frank, or a killer Santa Claus and an exorcism and the appearance of Shachath, an Angel of Death.
Although this season is one of absolute terror and human cruelty, it’s also told in an emotionally charged way, with the focus on the characters. These characters are mostly portrayed by the cast of the first season, which makes this anthology series extra special.
My favorite part
As in the first season Jessica Lange proves to be a grande dame of complex and tragic but mean characters. Her part is the most compelling and she portrays Sister Jude in a magnificent way. She’s the show stealer and she does it with allure and is a master in giving life to the most complex character without condemning her. Although she’s one of the main characters it feels sometimes as if it was her story all along, which also gets confirmed by the ending. Lana and Kit are second best and their performances are superb. Carrying the story and pushing it forward with their battle of justice.
The best scene for me was when Sister Jude also gets committed to Briarcliff as a prisoner and she starts to dance and sing the song ‘The Name Game’ and everybody joins in, dancing and singing in the common room. It’s such a surreal sight but it’s also full of hope and joy and energy and power and it stirs up a lot of emotions. It’s just perfect.
Scare factor: ★★★☆☆
Surreal factor: ★★★★☆
Gruesome factor: ★★★★★
Originality factor: ★★★★★
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Cast and crew
American Horror Story: Murder House is created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy. It stars Jessica Lange (Sister Jude), Evan Peters (Kit Walker), Sarah Paulson (Lana Winters) Frances Conroy (Shachath), Lily Rabe (Sister Mary Eunice), Zachary Quinto (Dr Oliver Thredson) Naomi Grossman (Pepper), Jospeh Fiennes (Monsignor Timothy Howard), Lizzie Brocheré (Grace Betrand), James Cromwell (Dr Arthur Arden) and Chloë Sevigny (Shelley).
Music by: James S. Levine, Mac Quayle. Cinematography: Michael Goi. Production company: 20th Century Fox Television, Ryan Murphy Productions, Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision. Original network: FX.