Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Okay, so that's it for another Labor Day weekend, and as we get back into the swing of things for the working week Simon Abrams busts out of the gate firing on all cylinders in his appreciation of American Horror Story's next offering, the "Halloween, Pt. 2" episode, which Simon considers the high-water mark of the series so far. Just a reminder that you can keep up with the action of this back-and-forth between Simon and me not only here but also at his very own blog Extended Cut, where he also posts reviews of current releases and nuggets from the past as well that may not get touched upon in his work for various publications each week. Without further delay then, here's Simon's kickoff for our week's worth of dalliances with the latest in this popular miniseries' slouch down the road to hell, where something is laying in wait to be born... But I'm getting ahead of myself. Simon, stop me!


So, as promised, I've finally started to come around on American Horror Story. I've kept with the show because I've hoped it would get as good as and then better than the standard set by "Pilot." Now, I think "Halloween, Part 2" is probably the best episode of the series thus far. Granted, we're only five episodes in, but shut up, that's why.

Anyway, I rewatched "Halloween, Part 2" so that this introductory post would be a little more detailed than my previous plot synopses have been. And as I rewatched it, I got a better handle on what I liked about this episode and why it mattered more to me than what I disliked. A good part of what I liked can be credited to episode director David Semel, who not only paces "Part 2" with great care, but also shoots it with an eye for negative space, and an artful use of natural lighting and extreme close-ups.

Generally speaking, I also found the way that various characters' arcs were immediately resolved in this episode to be satisfying. Addy's dead, so now Constance can, to paraphrase Manohla Dargis's review of Premium Rush, let a little light into her storyline (ie: be more than an ostensibly complex but mostly just lovably catty old crone). Thanks to Hayden, Ben is forced to accept that he can't superhumanly hold his family together. And thanks to Violet's increased interest in him, Tate's past is revealed just a little more. All of these revelations would not be as satisfying as they are without Semel's direction, I think. He's got my vote for MVP of "Halloween, Part 2," easy.

Events in "Halloween, Part 2" pick up almost exactly where "Halloween, Part 1" left off. Larry is banging on the door asking for a bribe while Ben and Vivien are away. This leaves Violet home alone with a psychopath on the front porch. That epithet ("psychopath") is one that Violet will later hurl at Chad the "fluffer," but it could just as easily be used to describe the derangoid behavior of any number of ghosts that have visited the Harmons over the last five episodes. It's an all-purpose epithet, really. Heck, even Rubber Man shows up briefly, right behind Violet's shoulder, but then he disappears just as quickly. After offering a trite but sufficiently angsty sign of affection (a hand-painted black rose), Tate calls Violet up and asks her if she wants to ditch her haunted home and go out on that "real" date Violet (last episode) said she wanted to go on. She does, so they go, abandoning the house to its ghosts.

Soon after that, Ben and Violet return to said house. The alarm has been triggered, so Morris Chestnut inevitably shows up to check in on things. But not for a little bit. Ben suspects that the alarm has been triggered by Hayden. But in all likelihood, the intruder that set off the alarm is Larry, whose scarred hand is briefly shown sneaking up and out at Violet right before she ditches the Murder House for relatively greener pastures. So Ben goes for a kitchen knife, but puts it down when Vivien gives him a dirty look. Like Tate, Vivien dismisses the fact that the Harmons' pumpkin patch has been upturned while they were out by anything more dangerous than some "asshole kids." It is Halloween, after all. This popular myth (we know that it can't be asshole kids; there's no such thing as coincidence on this show) is passed on like a game of telephone: Tate tells it to Violet, who passes it on to Vivien, who passes it on later to Morris. And lo, Morris shows up and chats/flirts with Violet some more. Which is getting tiresome, as when she says that he makes her feel much "safer"

Right now, Ben is and isn't right to think that Hayden has snuck into his house. She's skulking about but she's not the only intruder all up in there. First, Ben has to dispatch Larry, and he does this after making a Bruce Banner-worthy declaration about how badly he wants to make living with his family work ("You hear me? I am not giving up on this family!"). So he swings a shovel at Larry and warns him to get lost or he'll really lose it. This scene is one of the few really poorly-directed sequences, I feel. To feel Ben's unbridled rage, Semel makes the camera quake as if it had some kinda palsy. Spare me.

Anyway, Ben's mad, and desperate, look out, oh no. Meanwhile, Violet's out on her date with Tate. But it gets interrupted by a bunch of kids that look like they should be extras in Sometimes They Come Back. Who they are is obvious for everyone but Tate and Violet: these are the ghosts of Tate's victims. The recurring dream sequence that Tate's been afflicted with? The one I was so sure was fake until now? Turns out it might not be fake. This is the only viable conclusion I think we are left with, especially since Larry just lustfully asked Ben to kill him, "So I can come back and haunt you, too."

Now, I like this subplot for a couple of reasons, even moreso upon rewatch. It starts from the premise that yes, we can take Tate's change of heart seriously. We aren't really told this point-blank but rather are shown this as Tate frolics around Violet during her phone conversation with Vivien. I like this conversation too because it quietly shows us that Vivien is concerned with her daughter, and not just for her immediate safety but also her general emotional well-being ("Are you having fun?"). I like that.

So so so, right. Violet and Tate, getting harassed by some of Tate's victims, obviously dead but now back (because, as it was established in "Halloween, Part 1," the dead can apparently walk freely on Halloween). And they're mad at Tate. This I didn't find so impressive in and of itself. They want the life that he's taken away from them, they're mad at him, he's uncomprehending, and that just pisses them off that much more. This'd be mostly just uninteresting were it not for Semel's direction of the scene. Let's back up for a sec: the preceding scene where, before the ghosts show up, Tate and Violet try to get it on, was fairly well-shot. I didn't care for much of Tate's dialogue here ("This vast, limitless expanse. And that's...like your life, man. You can do anything. You can be anything. Screw high school. That's just a blip in your time line."). But I did like the way he was lit, the way his face looked in close-up and the way that young Evan Peters performed these lines. It achieved the desired effect, in other words, even if the material he was given to work with isn't so strong. I also liked the make-up effects that define Tate's victims better than any of their dialogue does. The girl with that weird, orange flap of mottled skin on the left side of her face: that was especially gruesome!

Anyway, back at the house. Hayden calls Vivien just as she's about to slip into a bath. She tells Vivien what she wants (a question so popular with the Harmons that Vivien and Ben ask Hayden it once each!): for Ben's true colors to be revealed. So she urges Vivien to ask Ben about Boston, the time when (as we already know) he told Vivien that he was visiting a patient when in fact he was visiting Hayden. Generally speaking, I don't think the Hayden subplot is that strong (hated lame dialogue like when she protests, "Is that what you think of women, Ben? Like there some disposable nothings that you can just stand on top of as you casually drink iced tea?!" I like that it gets resolved but I don't like the resolution (poof, she vanishes after being arrested by Morris, oo wee oo!).

But I do like this one shot where Semel takes the time to show us Hayden, later in the episode, luxuriating in the bath that Vivien drew for herself. Vivien's gone downstairs to investigate. So in the meatnime, Hayden sneaks into the bath. And you can see there's something wrong with the bath from the way that the water looks...a little brown, actually. And Hayden surfaces, and she has this look on her face, a look that's only accented by Semel's deft use of soft focus (When you use soft focus correctly, it really does have a great effect) and natural lighting. And it looks like she's turned on by the fact that she's exactly where Vivien was about to be. The look on Hayden's face seems to say: I could get used to this. Which for American Horror Story is downright subtle.

Speaking of which, I also liked the scene when Constance immediately resolves her feelings for Addy. The flashback where she recounts to Violet, now separated from Tate, is pretty effective if only because of (you guessed it) Semel's direction and Jessica Lange's performance. Watching her patiently but tearfully apply lipstick to Addy's corpse lends some much-needed weight to Constance's portentous line about how Addy didn't look "so pretty under those harsh, energy-efficient lights." The cigarette Constance conspiratorially shares with Violet was also a nice touch, but I probably wouldn't have bought that if the scene at large didn't work. Semel and his capable cast pull it off though, thankfully.

Maybe that's why I've been so frustrated with American Horror Story of late, Dennis: the directors' inability to pull off what the show's writers are (I'm now convinced) not entirely capable of. Television is a writer's medium, ja? But a good director can really make up for a lot of a screenplay's shortcomings.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. So: Constance tells Addy what Addy's death means to her. And she even reveals to Addy something I had previously suspected: Tate is Constance's other child. This is interesting in and of itself but not as interesting, I think, as the inconclusive confrontation between Tate and his ghosts. They implore Tate to remember what he's done but, just as the pieces seem to come together for him, he shakenly confesses, "I don't remember you." It's a moving scene, mostly because of his performance and the way his breakdown is presented. But I also liked this scene because it indicates that sometimes, while the past does often come back to haunt the show's protagonists, and repetition is a theme in this episode (I'll get to that in my next post), sometimes we have to remain in denial to protect ourselves. I may not like the alacrity with which Tate's love for Violet has redeemed him as a character. But I do like that now that he is more of a protagonist than an antagonist, his behavior establishes an interesting parallel between him and Ben. But again, more on this soon.

Ben, after the ordeal with Hayden, who as I said gets arrested but not successfully detained, leaves the house. And that leaves Vivien in a pretty mess, doesn't it? Good place to stop though, so I'll leave off here after mentioning that the sun goes up, Halloween ends, and many of the ghosts (some of whom I'll mention specifically in my next post) that haunted our heroes in "Halloween, Part 1" and "Part 2" troop back into the house, presumably to disappear.

Whatcha think, Dennis?


Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:






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