There’s a scene near the opening of the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven that is the definition of horror. The year is 1834, and a society madam, played by Kathy Bates, is a vain, sadistic woman who keeps a collection of slaves chained and tortured in the attic of her New Orleans mansion. The camera fixes on the mutilated people. You hear their moans and screams. It is pure horror.
Because it is grounded in the very real horror of slavery.
I’ve seen 3 episodes of this series so far (I haven’t seen the first or second seasons), and nothing else has compared to this one scene.
Don’t get me wrong, American Horror Story: Coven is entertaining and compelling. It follows a coven of witches in New Orleans (with roots in Salem) as they battle each other and the outside world. But it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a campfest or a gory/horror thriller. Too often it slides into camp.
The actors are big names. Jessica Lange is a great fit for the role of a witch obsessed with holding on to her fading looks and power. But there are times when Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates play it way over the top. There’s not much subtlety going on. Or maybe they’re just too big for the small screen.
The best horror is rooted in real-life tragedy, both small and large, because it gets us where we live. Case-in-point: the slave/torture scene. And American Horror Story: Coven has more of this. There’s an infertile woman desperate to get pregnant, and there’s a young man who is revealed to have been molested — both are great set-ups for horror. In the latter, you get the payoff (the pregnancy storyline is developing).
So there is potential. The writers are highly skilled in keeping you watching (and I”ll definitely watch on). I just wish they wouldn’t rely on lazy tropes like the rapist fraternity brothers or Jesus freak neighbor, scale back the camp, and stick with the horror.