The ninth installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series embraces nostalgia and horror iconography as it heads back to the ‘80s for a hilarious send-up of slasher movies that buries a surprising amount of surprises under buckets of gore.
There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie…
These days, everyone knows the rules of how to survive a horror movie — and no one’s ever laid them out quite as well as Randy Meeks in the Scream franchise. With its witty self-awareness and sharp deconstruction of modern horror tropes, Scream was a truly groundbreaking horror film when it was released in 1996. By subverting audience expectations, the movie managed to be a critical and commercial success, delivering an unpredictable plot and an iconic villain alongside some refreshingly clever moments of dark comedy. And if there’s one thing the Scream franchise never let you forget, it was the rules you needed to follow in order to survive.
Much like Scream, this season of American Horror Story promises to be a savvy reconstruction of the all-too-familiar subgenre, jumping back and forth between 1970 and — you guessed it — 1984, which is arguably the golden age of the slasher genre. While the rules of modern horror movies have changed since Scream was released, American Horror Story: 1984 seems set to return to the formula that made franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween so incredibly popular. Take, for instance, the cold opening, which features three camp counselors in the midst of a threesome before being massacred by a stalker. Not only is it a direct reference to the opening of the original Friday the 13th, but it reinforces that if anyone is bound to survive this season, they best not have sex — and given how horny these teenagers are, I don’t expect many of them to make it out alive.
While we have yet to see just how far Ryan Murphy is willing to play with genre conventions and bend these rules, American Horror Story: 1984 thus far honors the genre with numerous callbacks to a number of genre classics and lesser-known gems that mostly lived and died on home video. The ‘80s references come hard and fast too, with nods to such films as My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, Psycho II, Black Christmas, and of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Set in 1984 and in Los Angeles during the midst of the summer Olympics, American Horror Story: 1984 follows a method-trained actor named Xavier (Cody Fern) who brings a band of unemployed teenagers to work as counselors at the newly re-opened Camp Redwood. Among them is disgraced athlete Chet (Gus Kenworthy), who lost his chance at Olympic gold by failing a drug test; an aspiring aerobics competitor named Montana (Billie Lourd); the obligatory nice guy, Ray (DeRon Horton); and Brooke (Emma Roberts), the last virgin in town and recent survivor of an attack by the infamous Night Stalker.
The hapless teens are quickly introduced to a delirious hitchhiker and the obligatory voice of doom in the form of a surly local gas station attendant (Don Swayze), who warns them of Camp Redwood’s bloody past and tries to scare each character away before “bad” things happen. With the injured hitchhiker in tow, the fledgling counselors arrive at Camp Redwood, where they’re greeted by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), a devout Christian who intends to spend the summer teaching impressionable youth to love Jesus. As it turns out, Margaret has a secret past of her own: fourteen years earlier, on this very campsite, she was the sole survivor of the worst summer camp massacre of all time.
As this is the first episode of the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Camp Redwood” takes its time introducing the cast while fleshing out the backstory of both the summer campers and the killers who continue to terrorize the citizens of Los Angeles. To that end, this season introduces two (if not three) serial killers, starting with Benjamin Richter — aka Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) — who escapes a nearby mental hospital (in an extremely Halloween-esque sequence which even includes a female version of Dr. Loomis), and is headed straight to Camp Redwood, where he murdered several students a decade earlier. Then there’s also the Night Stalker, based on a real-life serial killer who terrorized California and horrified the nation. It’s been a banner year for fictionalized depictions of serial killers, and now American Horror Story: 1984 joins the likes of shows like Mindhunter by including Richard Ramirez, whose highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985.
While the Night Stalker will most likely be the central threat for the upcoming episodes, one of the reasons behind the popularity of American Horror Story is that each season contains at least one major plot twist, usually involving the mystery surrounding who the killer or killers really are. And with just one episode, American Horror Story: 1984 already seems to be teasing a third killer in the form of Cody Fern’s Xavier who — wait for it — is a method actor trained by Stella Adler who was recently offered the role of a serial killer on a TV show. Of course this is just speculation, but there is a good reason to believe that Xavier can’t be trusted, since he could have an ulterior motive for inviting the teens to the camp.
Theories aside, what makes American Horror Story: 1984 so fun so far is how it painfully recreates the low-budget aesthetic of the slasher films we once watched on well-worn ‘80s VHS cassettes or on late-night TV. Everything about this season nails the tone and style of the slasher films of that era, from the synth score (that calls to mind the music of John Carpenter), to the fantastic title sequence, to a soundtrack which includes tracks from Frank Stallone, Bananarama, Def Leppard, Hall and Oates, and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” The cinematography is especially on point, with jittery tracking shots, over-the-head bird’s eye views, and even missing film grain. Take note of the especially inspired sequence of a panic-stricken Brooke running from the killer that is juxtaposed with the torch lighting ceremony from the 1984 Olympics. It’s scenes like this that make me keep coming back to American Horror Story year after year.
Maybe it’s because I adore the slasher genre or maybe it’s because 1984‘s tone is so much lighter and stylized than previous seasons, but whatever the case, American Horror Story: 1984 is promising to be the most enjoyable installment yet. Whereas last year’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse is an acumination of eight seasons of crossovers diving deep into the mythology of the series (while indulging in too much fan service), 1984 feels like a breath of fresh air and a far step away from the sometimes nihilistic tone the series has become known for. There are still plenty of Easter eggs that connect to seasons past, and there is still plenty of blood that is shed, but overall the season premiere titled “Camp Redwood” is relatively light on gore and heavy on lustful undertones that potentially confirms the hugely popular fan theory about how all the seasons are connected.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have always found clever ways to remix classic horror films and movie tropes, and while American Horror Story: 1984 isn’t necessarily doing anything new, “Camp Redwood” is an exciting way to kick off the season. With every installment, AHS hooks viewers in with a radical new premise and plenty of shocking twists, and I personally can’t wait to see how it will shake up the slasher genre over the course of the next twelve episodes. With a new cast, a new tone, and a new decade, American Horror Story: 1984 could potentially be one of the show’s best seasons yet. All in all, 1984 presents a gory, funny, and affectionate skewering of the slasher genre. If you are a fan of the exploits of the 80s cinematic stalkers, you’ll find a lot to like here.