Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Michael Lehmann, others
Cast: Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe
Medium: Blu-ray /BD-50
Running Time: 572 minutes
Audio: English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
While the first season of American Horror Story was a far cry from what I’d call bad, the second season, dubbed Asylum, is exponentially better. While the cast largely remains the same, as the show is built around the idea of standalone stories featuring a recycled cast set in new roles, every aspect of the show has improved for its second go around.
This season, which features elements like Alien Abduction, Nazi Scientists, and Demonic Possession, is wildly eclectic and entertaining from beginning to end. The first season, generally called “Murder House” by series fans, was fixated entirely on the supernatural. But the second, while certainly delving into that realm, also further explores the concept of humanity as the worst monster of all. It also does a pretty great job of exposing the general misunderstandings of mental illness, homosexuality, and women’s rights issues that not only plague the time setting of the 1960’s seen here, but casts a pretty unsettling mirror on a number of similar conversations encountered nowadays.
The standout performance here is delivered by Jessica Lange, one of many returning actresses and actors found in American Horror Story: Asylum. Lange takes on the role of Sister Jude, a nun in charge of Briarcliff, the titular institution that houses the cast-offs of society that prisons are ill-equipped to deal with. This is very much her show, but the majority of the cast carry their own weight quite well. Newcomers comprised of screen stars like Joseph Fiennes, James Cromwell, Chloe Sevigny, and Ian McShane, along with returning faces such as Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and Zachary Quinto, all have very interesting stories to tell that’ll take you on the equivalent of a drama rollercoaster. While certain backstory expositions are a little ham-fisted here and there, you’ll have a hard time not getting absorbed in the various plots unraveling across Asylum’s 13 episode run.
American Horror Story: Asylum also pays appropriate homage to the films that have certainly inspired it. It will be hard to ignore the nods to popular horror fiction like The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many others throughout. But this isn’t some half-hearted attempt to capitalize on better material, instead the cast, crew, writers and directors have managed to twist familiar formulas in interesting ways, culminating in a season finale that lends closure and a sense of fulfillment to the viewer that few television series manage to do across numerous seasons, much less one.
I can’t stress enough how great this particular season was, and regardless of your feelings towards the first season, I’d highly urge you give this one a shot. It’s fantastic from beginning to end and one of the best horror related shows I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I’m also a big fan of the standalone approach to the individual seasons, and think that the show really plays upon that gimmick as a solid strength, something that was hard to prove with season one but is clearly cemented with Asylum.
The Blu-ray set that I’m reviewing here comes in three discs, with five episodes on disc 1 and five on disc 2, with the final three and the gut of extras on the third disc. Video quality here is pretty fantastic, even though I think it’s hard for most modern shows and movies to screw up their transition to the format nowadays. Everything on display holds true to the original HD broadcasts of the episodes, with no signs of over-processing or forced grain ruining the original vision. One thing that does stand out upon re-watching via Blu-ray is how much exploration is given to the cinematography this season, which doesn’t always work, but certainly amplifies the chaotic environment inherent to setting the majority of the show in an insane asylum.
For audiophiles you’ll have little to complain about with the 5.1 track used here, outside of the omission of 7.1 which isn’t unexpected. There’s a lot of disturbing, scene-setting ambient noise in just about every asylum set scene that definitely benefits from a surround sound set-up. On a mildly separate note I’d also like to point out that the series trademark opening track is still scratchy, unsettling and as appropriately foul as it was in the first season, and remains one of my favorite current T.V. show themes.
The only real disappointment with American Horror Story: Asylum on Blu-ray comes from the lack of interesting supplemental material. You’ve got a small number of deleted scenes on disc 2 and 3, and a couple of additions with expected cast interviews and the like There’s an awful extra dubbed The Orderly, which is told through a first person perspective where you’re given a tour of the interior of Briarcliff by an actor playing the main orderly, which is basically just a series of introductions to various inhabitants with spliced together scenes from the season. It’s largely useless and devoid of interesting information not already gleamed by simply watching the show.
There are two features of note, one that goes over set design and costume design, with the other focused on make-up and special FX. Both are somewhat short, about 15 minutes apiece, but if you have any love for the genre they’re definitely worth a watch. The Welcome to Briarcliff feature that goes into the set design of the asylum is particularly interesting, and I always find it neat to get some insight into the thought that goes behind making a set as integral to the horror as the story itself.
For this Halloween season I’d highly suggest checking out American Horror Story: Asylum if you haven’t done so already. In 13 episodes you’ll get a fully realized tale of human depravity and redemption that remains consistently good throughout. There’s few shows that push the envelope of horror like American Horror Story, and it’s especially nice to see improvement upon the concept hinted at by the first season. While the Blu-ray feature set is disappointing, it’s still well worth checking out for the main content alone.