Friday, March 11, 2016

In the Land of Gods and Monsters, or Thoughts on American Horror Story: Freak Show

 Patrons of Fraulein Ilsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities begin their freak show experience by stepping through the mouth of a giant smiling devil head, as if they are entering a level of Hell when in reality they are leaving one.  The performers have created their own haven within the nomadic canvas walls; a family unit and social structure that has no need for the surrounding world, other than relieving said patrons of their cold hard cash.
Jessica Lange returns once more in American Horror Story: Freak Show as Fraulein Ilsa, doing her best Marlene Dietrich impression.  This season indulges once again in musical interludes but this time they are more relevant to the actual storyline.  However the songs she sings are anachronistic, non-period correct covers from David Bowie and Lana del Rey that reinforce the idea that the Freak Show and American Horror Story as a whole exists outside of time and place, in its own universe, with its own rules.
Sarah Paulson narrates from her diaries as conjoined twins Bette and Dot, which makes excellent use of digital makeup and split screens to create the illusion.  The sisters are drawn into a larger world in the freak show, finding love, romance and acceptance.  But first Fraulein Ilsa immediately asks about their sex lives because be honest, we’re all curious, and it wouldn’t be American Horror Story if they didn’t ask, and then answer these questions in graphic detail.
Curiously, there are almost no supernatural elements this season except for the Halloween episodes where Fraulein ILsa sings “Gods and Monsters” by Lana Del Rey and calls upon the ghostly Edward Mordrake as played by Wes Bentley, who we will see again at the Hotel Cortez.  Instead the themes are freedom, sexual liberation in a repressive age and there are Civil Rights metaphors left and right with the treatment of the performers by the good people of Jupiter, Florida.
John Carrol Lynch, who you may remember from Fargo (1996) and The Drew Carey Show plays one of American Horror Story’s most memorable characters, Twisty the Clown.  His first appearance coming out of the woods in his soiled clown suit and feral smile is terrifyingly surreal.  Like Fraulein Ilsa, he is creating his own family by kidnapping victims and locking them in an abandoned school bus deep in the bayou.  He entertains them with balloon animals and cheap magic tricks, and is far more effective before his origin story is explained later in the season.
The series introduces Finn Wittrock as Dandy Mott, the spoiled man-child obsessed with the twins with Frances Conroy as his mother and Evan Peters returns as Jimmy Darling the Lobster Boy, supplying the entertainment under the big top and at the suburban Tupperware sex parties.  Kathy Bates plays his mother, Ethel the Bearded Lady with a confusing Pennsylvania Dutch accent and Angela Bates is Desiree Dupree, a three-breasted hermaphrodite married to Michael Chiklis as a self-loathing closeted circus strongman. Denis O’Hare returns as a conman who is not obsessed with Jessica Lange for once, and Naomi Grossman reprises her role as Pepper from Season Two, with references to Dr. Arden’s life in Berlin before the war.

There are obvious comparisons with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) as the production uses real-life sideshow performers including Mat Fraser as Paul the Illustrated Seal and Jyoti Amge as Ma Petite, the World’s Tiniest Woman and explores similar themes.  This season, along with Coven and Hotel ranks among my personal favorites but I find Freak Show to be bittersweet, as it was Jessica Lange’s swan song.  She would be missed, but her absence from American Horror Story would eventually be distracted by the casting in Season Five of another glamorous blonde, Lady Gaga.

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