American Horror Story: Season Nine - 1984 Review
One of the most appealing aspects of American Horror Story is its ability to reinvent itself each year. As someone who loved the first season, seasons two and three seemed to take the approach of shock for shock value - the moments of disturbing horror that littered season one were a regular, non-stop occurance after that and I soon switched off. The appeal of this season's theme with its 80 slasher movie overtones, is what drew me back and what a joy it was. It's still extreme - and I'm not sure whether that will works for more seasons to follow - but this theme was perfect for it.
American Horror Story: 1984 begins as Ryan's Murphy's love child from Friday The Thirteenth and Halloween and keeps up the frantic, mind-boggling place throughout it's nine-episode run. It plays the slasher movie tropes thick and fast, with some pretty gruesome deaths and shocking twists but manages to maintain its momentum. If there's one word I would use to describe this season, it's bonkers. And it may have been the most fun television experience I've had all year. A warning; some spoilers as I delve into the events of this latest run.
The season is lavishly dressed in its 80s setting. From the gloriously kitch introduction of the main cast in the lycra-clad exercise routine to the superb mix of 80s fashion, colour and sexual imagery fused with haunting glimpses of Camp Redwood in the cheesy title sequence, it plays with the same love of the decade as Stranger Things. But that show is literally child's play compared to what happens over these nine episodes (yes horror movie puns may come thick and fast over the course of this review).
The opening two episodes set the scene in classic slasher-movie style; innocent Brooke Thompson finds friendship in extrovert Montana Duke (a vibrant performance from Billie Lourd) and her fellow camp counsellors Xavier Plympton (Cody Fern), a guy who could have featured in a Wham video and wants to be a serious actor, buff Chet Clancy (Gus Kenworthy) who attracts Brooke's eye and Ray Powell (DeRon Horton), who carries a dark secret of his own. After almost falling prey to vicious LA serial killer Richard Ramirez (Zach Villa), she decides to escape the city and join the others for a summer at the newly reopened Camp Redwood.
Of course, Camp Redwood was the sight of a massacre years earlier, which saw a group of sexually-charged camp counsellors fall prey to the infamous Mr Jingles (John Carroll Lynch); now in 1984, the sole survivor of the killer is Margaret Booth (a wonderfully OTT Leslie Grossman), who is back to give the camp a fresh lease of life. Naturally Mr Jingles escapes the asylum, killing a guard and stealing a truck Michael Myers style, and heads back to Camp Redwood to finish what he started.
And that's just episode one. Over the course of the next four episodes, the intrepid group of counsellors desperately tries to evade the fate of their predecessors as they are hunted by both Mr Jingles and Ramirez, who has tracked Brooke to Camp Redwood to finish what he started. Having the group - joined by Matthew Morrison's 'well endowed' lead counsellor Trevor Kirchner and non-nonsense camp nurse Nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) - hunted by two separate killers in the same night seems as ludicrous as it is fun, but that's only the start of what American Horror Story: 1984 has to offer.
If you thought the season was playing as a straight forward slasher-movie setting, the twists and turns that arrive in episode three turn the entire story on its head. There's a brief 'red wedding' flashback to Brooke a year earlier in episode two, but it's the revelations concerning Montana and Nurse Rita that really show just how bonkers the season will become. Before long, you're questioning who's innocent and who's actually a twisted killer / psychopath / all round bad person (well except Ray!). There are some glorious fun moments - Mr Jingles encountering fake a group of Mr Jingles is so ridiculous it works - while Ray's frantic motorbike escape is so shocking, and yet so side-splittingly funny.
The twists and turns of episode three are far from the end; one of the genius things about season nine is that it doesn't keep to the single slasher-movie setting. After one long, very bloody night, it all culminates in episode five with the climax of the movie that plays as the blood-soaked massacre at the end of the first movie. Brooke stabbing Montana to death while the bus full of camp kids and start arrive and witness the act screaming in horror is the hilarious icing on the cake.
Again, this is more than just a slasher movie on acid; as Ramirez and Jingles drive off into the sunrise on a killing spree road trip, poor final girl Brooke finds herself arrested for murder and the real killer survives to fight another day. We all suspected that Margaret was evil, but the twists surrounding her character and Mr Jingles make the season. And then suddenly we jump forward five years and we're in sequel territory. Yes. This isn't just the night he came home just when you thought it was safe to go back to camp. Season nine is the whole Camp Redwood franchise in nine blood-soaked episodes.
Jumping forward to 1989 is another bold but fun move, playing as a sequel movie where the body-count is higher, the stage bigger and the stakes more outrageous than ever. The twists and turns keep coming, from Margaret Booth with her big hair and shoulder pads becoming fabulously rich off of marketing attractions out of scenes of violent murders. So naturally, the Camp Redwood food and musical festival, filled with big acts like Billy Idol and Belinda Carlisle is the perfect setting for another bigger bloodbath, right?
Somehow, Ryan Murphy manages to pack in and navigate multiple plot threads, all as ridiculous as each other, without ever letting the momentum falter or the season fall apart. Mr Jingle's path to redemption and return to Camp Redwood adds a whole other twist concerning his mother - surprise! It didn't begin with that first massacre back in the 70s! Lilly Rabe is an essential late entry into the season, playing the vengeful woman in white. In any other show, throwing in yet another serial killer in Dylan McDermott's highway serial killer Bruce would be a step too far, but in this season, it just adds to the fun (though admittedly, he does get a bit lost in the mix after his terrific debut in episode seven).
From ghosts - no one really stays dead on this show - to slaughtered musicians on buses, this really is a blast from beginning to end. Again, rather than playing out as a standard slasher sequel setting, the jump forward to 2019 and focus on Finn Wittrock's character serves as a solid coda / quasi final story in the Camp Redwood trilogy. Even the reveal of the final girl, defines expectations. This season might play fast with its love of the slasher movie genre, but it doesn't play to convention. Like the happy ending; after some extremely gruesome deaths - the repeated slaughter of one killer and the woodchipping murder of another, which is sure to go down as one of the most brutal TV moments of 2019 - we're serenaded off with Mike and the Mechanic's The Living Years, in what is sure to leave a smile on anyone's face.
It's clear too that everyone had a lot of fun making this season and it really shows. While it would be tempting to dismiss the cheesy characters and their ludicrous motivations, there are some terrific performances here. Leslie Grossmans gives a delightfully unhinged performance, Angelica Ross carries off some bonkers twists with perfect conviction, while Billie Lourd stands out from the crowd, flitting between psychopathic and sympathetic. But it's John Carroll Lynch who shines the most. Far from the faceless killer with the raincoat and knife, his journey is a hugely engaging and essential one. He is the one character you'll invest in the most.
American Horror Story: 1984 is a bucket full of 80s cheese smothered in about eight pints of blood. It's not subtle; it's gruesomely violent, packed with plenty of twists and turns and plays fast and loose with the slasher-movie genre while still showing great love for it's tropes. It's the most bonkers show I've watched this year and I've loved every minute of it.