TV

Review | American Horror Story 1984 Episode 1: Camp Redwood

American Horror Story delivers a fresh, 80s-inspired slasher as it begins its ninth season.

Camp Redwood

Starring Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman, Cody Fern, Matthew Morrison, Gus Kenworthy, John Carroll Lynch, Angelica Ross and Zach Villa

It is remarkable just how committed the creative team are to the 80s theme this year. Even despite the title, I had half expected to hear the same old opening credits, complete with gothic fonts. However, you have to hand it to them: this is a committed homage to 80s slashers. The entire hour is an orgy of 80s entertainment, from the leotards to the lighting. It must have been a nightmare to achieve, even down to the echoing of camera movements and colours, but it really pays off. It reinvigorates the series significantly and I think that this is the most excited I have been about American Horror Story since Coven.

As with all good stories (in my experience anyway), this tale begins with a threesome. No, really. Entirely unnecessary, but it’s always nice to be distracted by a bit of nudity before the blood starts spilling. In a flashback to 1970, three camp counsellors are in the throes of passion before they are brutally stabbed to death by a lumbering figure. Their true negligence is revealed when the camera shows similarly despatched campers, all of whom have had their ears cut off as a trophy for the killer.

Back in the present – or, at least, 1984 – we are treated to peak 80s realness in the form of an aerobics class led by Xavier (Cody Fern), which allows Brooke (Emma Roberts) to meet the rest of the core cast: ballsy Montana (Billy Lourd), jock Chet (Gus Kenworthy) and carefree Ray (DeRon Horton). In the face of attacks from the Night Stalker in Los Angeles, Xavier has accepted a job as a camp counsellor at Camp Redwood and invites the rest of the group to join him to escape the city for the summer. Only Brooke does not agree, deciding to stay and continue her summer college courses and firmly establishing herself as the demure final girl (a welcome role for Emma Roberts, who I feel has been dealt a bum hand with her AHS roles).

That same night, Brooke is attacked by an apparent Satanist who claims to be the Night Stalker. She defends herself and a knocking at the door interrupts and scares the man away before he is able to harm Brooke. Shaken, Brooke decides to join the rest of the core group. Stopping to fill up at a rest stop, Xavier receives an ominous answering machine message claiming to know where he is going, and the gang are warned off journeying to Camp Redwood by the gas station attendant, who claims that they will all die.

Undeterred, the group continue on their journey, crashing into a hiker on the journey who is amnesiac with old injuries on his arms. While Xavier is driven by self-interest in distancing himself from the incident at all, the group agree to take the hiker to the camp so that he can receive medical attention.

Upon arriving at the Camp, Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) gives them a tour and explains the rules of camp. The main gist of the rules is that Margaret intends to run the camp in line with her conservative Christian values. Later that night, the camp nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) relays the massacre that befell Camp Redwood fourteen years previously. As the tale goes, Benjamin Richter, otherwise known as Mr. Jingles – a deeply unsinister name – (John Carroll Lynch) was responsible, and Margaret was the sole survivor of his rampage, playing a key role in the court proceedings following his police capture. Meanwhile, the hiker awakes and discovers his ear is missing. He gives Brooke a sinister warning, insisting that something bad is going to happen.

In the counsellors’ cabin, Trevor Kirchner (Matthew Morrison) interrupts Brooke’s worry with his ginormous penis. Literally, it’s a plot point. Turns out that he was edited out of a Jane Fonda video because of his distracting member. After a casual skinny dip in the lake, Trevor and Montana head back inside due to an approaching storm and a sinister set of headlights at the lake’s edge.

Meanwhile, at an insane asylum, Richter has escaped, having faked suicide and murdering an orderly. On the way out, he unlocked all the other cells, as well as having a newspaper clipping of the camp’s reopening in his cell. His first act, in a bizarre coincidence, is to murder Ed, the gas station attendant and steals his truck to get to the edge of the camp.

The opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics stirs up some unpleasant emotions in Chet, having been disqualified from the American team due to drug use, which leads to him injuring Ray’s hand in his anger. Brooke goes to find medical supplies for him, and discovers the hiker impaled in the medical bay. With Richter apparently in pursuit, Brooke flees back to the cabin, but they do not believe her tale, especially when the hiker’s body is nowhere to be found. Margaret encourages them all to go to bed, but Brooke is unable to sleep. Hearing the pay phone, she answers and hears the jingling of keys that signals Mr. Jingles. Meanwhile, the Night Stalker watches, unseen.


Musings

I really love the 80s vibe of this series. It’s a really committed and cohesive vision, and the levels of inspiration are seen throughout. Not just in the costuming and music, but also in the lighting, camerawork and scripting. It feels fresh and exciting; a throwback to the slasher era, instead of the more thriller and grisly aspects that have been explored in previous seasons.

It’s refreshing to have so many new faces in the cast. The most long-serving member is Emma Roberts, who herself only came to the series in Coven and has only appeared intermittently since then, having sat out Hotel, Roanoke and Cult. It gives the series more stakes than previously, and is more about creating believable characters than it is about creating distinct main roles for the key players Evan Peters or Sarah Paulson.

On the note of characters, this is the first season in a while in which the characters seem like normal people, instead of the morally grey fare that has been on screens of late. Instead of multiple cruel and unpleasant characters, all of the cast seem to be likeable, which is going to make the stakes that much higher.

I am thrilled to see Emma Roberts in the typical “final girl” role. She has not had the best treatment through American Horror Story, and has always fallen into the role of bitch in Ryan Murphy’s vehicles generally, so it’s nice to see other sides to her, as I’ve always found her very compelling on screen.

With a very simple premise, I am looking forwards to how AHS amps up the horror this season. In previous years, with more unusual and unrelatable ideas, such as Freak Show, the series has spent so much time establishing the bizarre premise that the horror is either secondary or inherent within the situation. It has often meant that these moments haven’t been dealt with in a strictly human way. In Hotel, for example, with so many supernatural creatures, it almost became the new normal for ghosts and for vampires to be wandering around. The familiarity somewhat limited the horror factor, so it’s nice to see this series really tapping into what is widely regarded as the Golden Age of horror cinema.

Seeing as he’s the only person currently in the camp not in the main cast, it’s not looking too hopeful for poor Ray, I have to admit.


This season…

Seriously, it just looks amazing.

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