Wednesday, 20 May 2015

TV Show Review: American Horror Story: Asylum (2012)

© FX |  Source:

United States; 13 Episodes (Season 2); Horror, Drama, Thriller
Channel: FX
Creator: Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy
Cast: Lizzie Brocheré, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes, Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Zachary Quinto, Lily Rabe

Just remember if you look in the face of evil, evil's gonna look right back at you. – Sister Jude

Warning: Spoilers for American Horror Story: Asylum follow...

And with that welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to my review of American Horror Story: Asylum. To get into the right mood feel free to click the video above and listen to the song while reading (You’ll know why.) The second season of Falchuk’s and Murphy’s cash cow of a TV show is not directly related to its predecessor, American Horror Story: Murder House, but they both operate on the same general principles: there is one major theme underlying each season. In Murder House it was infidelity, in Asylum the theme is (in)sanity. What links the two seasons even more is, despite taking place in different periods of time (S01: present day/ S02: the 60s), many members of the by now familiar cast of season 1 slip into different roles in season 2 and lead you through the hell house of a mental institution called Briarcliff. This method of “recycling” their actors is kept up through all of the by now four seasons of AHS – one of the many things I really love about the show! So, despite starting from zero each time, there is already some kind of familiarity – the AHS family, so to say. I found a chart that gives you an idea of what I’m talking about, in case you don’t yet know the show (which is kind of unforgivable.)

© FX |  Source: reddit

As I already mentioned, Asylum is set in the sixties and most of the action takes place in the church-run mental institution Briarcliff Manor. The pilot episode opens with Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and his girlfriend Alma (Britne Oldford) being abducted by extraterrestrial beings. When he returns, Kit is accused of being the serial killer “Bloody Face,” who murders women while wearing a mask made of his victims’ skin. For lack of evidence, he is admitted to Briarcliff, where the sensationalist journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) tries to interview him. But not only that: she tries to uncover what lurks beneath the respectable façade of Briarcliff. It’s not quite so easy, though. Lana bangs her head at the brick wall that is Sister Jude (the terrific Jessica Lange) and then ends up as a patient herself (in order to cure her homosexuality, which was considered a mental disorder those fifty years ago.)

Sister Jude does all it takes to protect the dream of Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), whom she reveres like a saint and yet also desires. That is why it is especially hard on her to see her role as his number one helper being snatched away by the scientist Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell.) Jude and Arden try to degrade the other by uncovering their hidden agenda. And there is a lot to be uncovered in Doctor Arden’s case. In Briarcliff’s basement laboratories, he performs gruelling experiments on the patients. There is no apparent medical reason for his atrocious procedures; he seems to be doing it for the fun of it. In the course of the series, however, no other than Anne Frank (Franka Potente) recognises him as Hans Grüper, a Nazi war criminal she met in a concentration camp. With his Nazi past uncovered we realise that Arden is not just your average psychopath, driven by a morbid curiosity to dissect and mutilate the human body, but is rather suffering from something like Auschwitz-separation-issues, missing the time when he could freely experiment with humans in the name of science. He has thus made Briarcliff his new refuge and carries on his impious experiments to create the perfect human being, here called “Reapers.” (See picture)

© FX |  Source: americanhorrorstory.wikia
Arden finds a friend in the devout nun Sister Mary-Eunice (Lily Rabe) – at least after the devil has taken possession of her body in the aftermath of an exorcism-gone-awry. And the infernal creature is a great fan of Arden’s work. Together they kick Sister Jude from her throne and just like Lana, she ends up as a patient, having to live under the very rules she enforced herself.
© FX |  Source: screencrush

I’ll just break off here, before this summary (which was actually supposed to be brief, but you can see how that worked) turns into a full-fledged essay. But there is soo much happening… Despite comprising no more than 13 episodes, this season is jam-packed with so many different storylines, characters, subplots and an intricate web of symbolism that it seems impossible to mention all of it. So my last plot-related words are: look forward to an appearance of the real Bloody Face, and now let’s move on to some more general things.

While in the first season the main evil force or paranormal elements were the ghosts haunting the mansion purchased by the Harmons, Asylum flaunts a variety of different horrors. So many, in fact, that it skirts the line of being too much. We have the whole oppressive atmosphere at Briarcliff, not just created by the building itself, but also its patients. Then there are aliens, human experiments and the results of those, an exorcism, a skin-wearing mass-murderer, rape, Nazis, the angel of death, and even the devil himself gets a fair amount of screen time. 

The experimental and often uncomfortable camera angles and the superb choice of music also deserve their credit for creating an overall eerie and somewhat bizarre mood. Just check out this, almost Glee-inspired seeming scene, which happens to be my favourite because it’s just entirely out of place in this drab and dreary madhouse atmosphere and functions like a comic relief. Especially so since, right before that, the former nun-gone-patient Jude underwent a lobotomy, performed by Mr. Nazi and Sister Devil, so you can imagine that it did not go according to the regulations. And what do you do when your brain has just been fried? Party hard:

Actually, I’m of the opinion that in a horror movie there is rarely ever such a thing as “too much” – but in the case of AHS Asylum that is debatable. This format of a mini-series offers too little room to explore the abundance of tropes the producers dished up this season and thus some things don’t get a satisfactory amount of attention and leave you wondering: why even introduce that when you won’t work with it? The intention behind that might have been to end the series with a couple of question marks, but the many loose ends lead to quite some confusion. Especially the whole alien-related aspects are quite dubious. Like, why are they so interested in Kit? Why did they revive his murdered wives and what about his children? And where did they take him in the end? Too many questions, too little answers…

On the whole though, this season is often considered to be the scariest of them all and there might be some truth in that. Personally, I think Murder House had more heart attack moments than Asylum, but the deeply depressing, disturbing and discomforting atmosphere of Briarcliff winds itself through every minute of screentime and conveys a perpetual impression of suspense – you just wait for something to happen. All. The. Time. And I love that. But for all the suspense, the season is interlaced with special moments – either especially cruel and disturbing or out-of-the-place hilarious - that really turn Asylum into a memorable ride. It’s a highly addictive TV-show that leaves you begging for more and the good news is there is an almost inexhaustible fund of possible themes for upcoming seasons. After Murder House and Asylum, the next project is called Coven. It’s supposed to be a little lighter and more humorous than the previous seasons and has witchcraft as its central theme. If that doesn’t sound promising, then I don’t know what does. So if you still haven’t watched the show, you should definitely start soon.



  1. I'm really looking forward to your take on the third round of AHS.

    My initial opinion was that Asylum was better than Murder House, but after a rewatch of the first two seasons I agree that season 1 is the superior. It's not as chatoic as Asylum. On the other hand - it doesn't have Anne Frank.

    Aren't the title seqeunces the best?!

    1. Yeah the Anne Frank part was really a jaw-dropper. As were many other things throughout the series, which is why I agree that it was really chaotic, maybe too much so. But this season definitely lived up to its title as a "Horror Show."

      And yes, each season I'm looking forward to the title sequences to see how many familiar faces will make an appearance again.