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Tag: Jessica Lange

Into the Labyrinth: American Horror Story Coven

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For every good television program, there are a thousand bad ones. For every new idea, there are a thousand recycled ones. Sacrifices need to be made on the alter of good taste in order for things to move forward. Some of these sacrifices are unnerving and painful to watch.  If you’ve been with American Horror Story from the beginning, then you’ve already seen your fair share of flinch worthy material. We’re entering the third season, and are now deep into the labyrinth of  nightmares and pain and lucky for us; the pain is delicious.

Many centuries ago on the Greek Isle of Crete,  King Minos suffered a moment of doubt and prayed to the Gods to show him a sign. Poseidon hearing his prayers sent forth the most beautiful white bull any human had ever set eyes on rising from the sea foam. Poseidon had planned for Minos to sacrifice it in a ceremony in his honour, but Minos had other plans. He substituted one of his own prize calves instead and kept the white bull for himself. Poseidon was not amused with the deception, so he decided to teach Minos a lesson. Poseidon bewitched Minos’ wife Pasipha to fall in love with the bull and she in her delusion employed the great architect Daedalus to construct a wooden bull decoy for her to climb into to fool her new love. The plan worked and the Minotaur was born.

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Minos found himself the foster father to a hideous monster. Daedalus was once again called and a labyrinth was built to house Minos’ problem child. The Minotaur was imprisoned but not forgotten, Minos arranged annual sacrifices by tyrannizing  nearby Athens who had to supply seven youths and seven maidens for the Minotaur to devour. On the tenth year of the sacrifice, the hero Theseus counted himself among the seven. On his arrival to Crete, Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with the Athenian. She couldn’t bear to have her crush chomped by her half-brother, so she came up with a way to help him. She gave Theseus a ball of string and a sword and had him hide them near the entrance to the labyrinth. He used the sword to kill the Minotaur and the string to find his way back out of the maze. He swiftly left Crete, taking Ariadne with him, later abandoning her on a island while she slept. You can see his ship sailing away on the left side of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Jerk.

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-1523

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-1523

Apparently, the Minotaur didn’t die that day in the labyrinth, but was resurrected at the hands of Madame LaLaurie (played by the tour de force that is Kathy Bates) in 1832 Louisiana. Bates’s character is based on a real woman who actually did unspeakable things to the people in her charge. According to AHS lore she was cursed for her atrocities with immortality and buried for 180 years by Marie Laveau -Voodoo witch played by Angela Bassett. Madame LaLaurie is dug up in modern day New Orleans and is quickly whisked off to the local finishing school for young witches. In the first two episodes of Coven we’ve been introduced to death by sex, franken-boyfriend, a homicidal child star, a human voodoo doll, Stevie Nicks and our good friend the Minotaur among other things.

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American Horror Story Coven is already deep into the labyrinth, how far you might ask? Who knows, I threw the string out seasons ago. I’ll go anywhere they want to lead me as long as Jessica Lange’s the tour guide. This show is so over the top it transcends both good and bad and has become its own thing.  AHS jumped the shark halfway through its season one opening credits. You don’t watch American Horror Story for the subtlety or what passes for substance these days, you watch it to see Jessica Lange chew through everything in her wake. (This season judging by the cast, she has some fine sparring partners to go toe to toe with.) I’ve been lost in this maze of Horror tropes, mixed messages, great one liners and paint yourself into a corner plot-lines for a few years now and have grown very fond of the monsters and dead ends I’ve found here.

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Oh the Horror, the Horror

The over the top circus that is  American Horror Story tickles me to no end. I was thrilled this week when season 2 premiered; shifting gears with a whole new premise and story arch. Although we have moved from a modern day residential Californian neighbourhood to an asylum for the criminally insane circa 1964 all the elements that made the first season so compelling are still intact.    The thing I really like about A.H.S. is that it wears its influences on its sleeves. They have no problem with paying homage to or directly ripping off scenes from countless Horror films. In the season 2 premiere alone we see references to Fire in the Sky, Carrie, Silence of the Lambs and a not so subtle tip of the hat to A Clockwork Orange amongst others. It is obvious that the writers of the show are also huge fans of the genre.

When it comes to Horror I’m conflicted: I really love the themes and creativity that it reflects but I have no real interest in watching a whole movie nowadays. As a social barometer it is brilliant, the trends in Horror say so much about the times we live in.  Right now we are fascinated with the imminent  zombie apocalypse and the ghosts that we have lurking in our own homes. Horror’s job is to prey on our fears and what people fear most right now is the perceived instability of the economy and the breakdown of society that it may cause. The real estate crisis is the real evil presence that  has crept into our houses. Foreclosure becomes the poltergeist and the safety we once felt about the place we reside is shaken. People don’t feel safe in their own homes anymore and movies like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister all play on this to some level.

Another aspect that a movie  like Paranormal Activity addresses is our overwhelming fascination with documenting everything. Technology has come so far that everyone has the capability to film every waking and in the case of P.A. sleeping hour of the day. We have become addicted to the small screen and we may be dangerously close to losing the big picture. You don’t need to watch The Walking Dead to see zombies, just go to your local mall. Everywhere you look people are lumbering along, heads down, completely disengaged with their surroundings and enamored with their handheld devices. What happens when you put a bunch of zombies in a room together? Nothing; for a creature that is constantly surrounded by their peers they are horrible at socializing. What happens when you put a bunch of people around a table who all have cell phones? You do the math.

Horror is the perfect mirror that shows us our inner monsters and ridiculous attitudes. It allows us to safely exercise these demons with an adrenaline inducing jolt or spine chilling shiver. Where Horror lost me was the trend towards more jump scares and torture. I feel torture has very little social commentary or entertainment value. I’m not opposed to the odd bit of gore but in this everything’s been done/nothing’s shocking climate, I long for the days of the straight forward masked psychopath stalker of the seventies and eighties. Those movies were the perfect morality plays. They banked upon society’s irrational love/hate affair with youth. Teenagers were always up to no good. It seemed all they did was sneak off into the woods and get wasted and have sex. If this was the kind of conduct you would engage in, then you would obviously suffer some grizzly fate. Horror as moral compass, the contradiction is sublime.

These days television has picked up the Horror gauntlet in a new and refreshing way. Both American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are taking the genre into the realm of serial storytelling where characters and plots have time to grow and evolve over the course of a season. The story is the armature in which to build the scares around. After an engaging first season The Walking Dead nearly lost me during season 2. It devolved into one earnest conversation followed by an even more earnest conversation with every episode finishing with a shocking reveal. I hope season 3 has a little more to offer. American Horror Story: Asylum has definitely something to offer and that something is Jessica Lange. Her role may be new but her presence is always exhilarating. I would put her in the same league as Edie Falco; actors who can totally inhabit a character and then shed it to define a new persona. Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude  exudes both menace and pathos in equal measure. She is doing wrong in the name of right, oh the horror, the horror.