From spirit-corpses to S&M-clad ghosts, Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” has it all

Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, and Connie Britton as the Harmon family

Originally coming to prominence as the co-creator of Popular on the WB, Ryan Murphy soon followed up that splashy, satirical teen show with the much grimmer and more adult Nip/Tuck on cable network FX – before veering back to lighter-hearted teen fare with Glee in 2009. Now Murphy is plumbing the dark depths once again with the upcoming FX series American Horror Story, about a family that’s plagued by a series of bizarre supernatural occurrences in their new Los Angeles home.

This week, I was one of the first to screen the pilot of the new series, a 90-minute affair that was introduced by Murphy, his producing partner Brad Falchuk, and actress Connie Britton, who stars in the show as Vivien Harmon, a woman moving with her psychiatrist husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and rebellious teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) into a stately Victorian that comes with a bleak past and a cheap price tag. The family, it should be mentioned, boasts a rather gloomy recent past of its own, burdened by both a miscarriage and a trust-dissolving extramarital affair.

Connie Britton

In their preface to the screening, Murphy and Falchuk referenced elegant classic horror films such as The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now as influences, and Britton described the two men as “visionaries.” According to the showrunners, there will be no vampires or werewolves, with the series functioning more as a “psycho-sexual thriller” with supernatural elements. And whereas Nip/Tuck was about transformation and Glee is about outcasts and underachievers, American Horror Story is about infidelity (which Murphy described as the central “monster” of the show going forward).

While what was shown to critics was close to a finished product, the producers noted that some changes might yet be made.

The pilot opens with a 1978 prologue that sees two redheaded twin brothers entering the front yard of a creepy house (the same one the central family moves into over 30 years later), where they encounter an ominous young girl with Down syndrome. She warns them off (“You’ll be sorry”) but they ignore her and call her a “freak” before stepping inside. Needless to say, the exploration doesn’t end well for them.

We fast forward 30-plus years and are introduced to Vivien (Britton), returning to her well-appointed home somewhere on the East Coast with a bag of groceries. She suddenly hears a noise upstairs and calls the police, believing there’s an intruder. She then grabs a kitchen knife and (in true horror-movie fashion) inexplicably decides to investigate on her own. She creeps down the hall and opens a door …

And finds something – I won’t say what – that serves as the catalyst for the family’s move across country. This all happens before the opening credits.

It is in these first two scenes that the tone of American Horror Story is firmly established: sinister, disjointed, unnerving — peculiar. Much of this is owed to the excellent cinematography by Christopher Baffa (Murphy’s frequent collaborator on both Glee and Nip/Tuck), who makes nearly every frame bleed with a sense of intangible anxiety and foreboding that’s achieved through a deft combination of hand-held camerawork and liberal use of close-ups.

However, rather than creating a sense of comfortable intimacy with the characters, these in-tandem techniques instead feel like a violation of personal space.

Almost immediately following the family’s move we are introduced to the predictably oddball cast of characters: Constance (Jessica Lange), the faded would-be movie star who gave up her dreams to care for now-grown Down syndrome daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer); a mysterious, crazy-eyed housekeeper named Moira (Six Feet Under mom Frances Conroy) who seems to have come with the house; and Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), a troubled high school-aged loner being treated by Ben, who has made the ill-advised decision to run his psychiatry practice from home.

Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy

As mentioned previously, what works well in the show is the authentic sense of unease and dislocation it provokes in the viewer. There is a vague underpinning of malevolence in even the most seemingly mundane scenes, made all the more cogent by a brief bit of exposition in which the fate of the past owners (a gay couple driven to murder-suicide) is rather matter-of-factly laid out by a realtor.

The cast is uniformly solid, particularly Britton (last seen in the now-cancelled, critically-acclaimed series Friday Night Lights), who makes a potent impression as a woman simultaneously struggling to forgive her husband and grieving the loss of a stillborn child. McDermott doesn’t quite manage to invest his role with the same level of gut-wrenching pathos (in one key scene, the actor woefully mistakes volume for emotional truth).

Perhaps the most curious element of the pilot is how many overt horror elements Murphy (who also directed) and Falchuk decided to pack in. While the two writer/exec-producers aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, the number of shock cuts, grisly spirit-corpses, S&M-clad ghosts (seriously), and clawed demons (barely-glimpsed in one particularly nerve-wracking sequence) is surprising, particularly given that I went in expecting a slower build.

Unfortunately, this wall-to-wall, “give ’em what they want” mentality in the pilot episode could also prove to be the series’ undoing. The poor family suffers so many traumas in their new home – including the appearance of a horribly-burned former resident (Denis O’Hare) who desperately tries to convince McDermott to leave – that it seems pretty unlikely any sane person would continue living there much past the second episode.

Indeed, Murphy and Falchuk will need to give the coming-apart-at-the-seams Harmon clan a pretty good reason to stick around for the audience to continue suspending their disbelief through the rest of the season (not to mention future ones, if it comes to that), a feat that certainly isn’t impossible but may prove difficult. That said, the setup was intriguing enough that I look forward to finding out exactly how they’ll try and pull it off.

American Horror Story premieres October 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.