The second installment of American Horror Story comes courtesy of Asylum. With the twisted success of Murder House and the returning of many of the cast, Asylum promises to be scarier and more disturbing. Revolving around the events of a mental institution in 1964 and the attitudes towards mental health at that time( as well as murder, deceit, religion and possession), Asylum is on taboo breaking form from the get go and unravels with fiendish delight and a whole lot of twisted horror to match. Be warned, spoilers will follow in my review.
Briarcliff Manor is a mental asylum in 1964 Massachusetts to house the criminally insane. It is run by the ambitious Monsignor Timothy Howard(Joseph Fiennes) and is maintained by the vicious Sister Jude(Jessica Lange) and childlike novice Sister Mary Eunice(Lily Rabe). The sinister Dr. Arthur Arden(James Cromwell) treats the patients but is secretly conducting illegal experiments on many of them for his twisted medical research. Into this disturbing atmosphere comes Lana Winters(Sarah Paulson), a secretly lesbian journalist is trying to find a scoop on the place and expose the cruel procedures that the patients endure at the hands of the staff. Also, a young man by the name of Kit Walker(Evan Peters) has been admitted to the facility after he is accused of butchering his wife and many other women. He is suspected of being the renowned killer Bloody Face, although Kit protests his innocence and says that a strange life form has kidnapped his wife and how she is still alive. Lana gets more than she bargained for when she trespasses into the secrets of the asylum and the cunning Sister Jude craftily has her admitted as a patient at the brutal asylum. Traumatized and brutalised, Lana has her world turned upside down as she realises the power that Sister Jude and Dr Arden possess. Other patients in the facility include the mysterious Grace Bertrand(Lizzie Brocheré), a young girl accused of murdering her family and Shelley(Chloë Sevigny), a troubled nymphomaniac who often tries to tempt the evil Dr Arden. Lana has to adjust to her surroundings and attempt to escape the asylum before it is too late, with the at first reluctant help of Kit and Grace. Elsewhere, strange creatures lurk in the woods out of sight but always hungry. Dr. Oliver Thredson(Zachary Quinto), a new psychiatrist arrives and begins to question the gruesome treatment of patients. A young boy is possessed and after an intense exorcism, the demon inside of him transfers itself into Sister Mary Eunice. This causes her personality to alter drastically as she transforms from timid girl to sly and manipulative woman. We get flashes to the present where a morbid couple visit the rundown Asylum and get much more than they had intended to in grisly fashion. There’s even an appearance from the Angel of Death(Frances Conroy) who appears to those who want to die and bestows them with a death kiss. And to top that off, each of the main characters has deep dark secrets that begin to slither out into the light.
The most prominent aspect of inducing terror is the setting, full of long, unending corridors and laboratories for sickening experiments. The visual style of harsh contrasts between light and dark, as well as jittery cuts, builds up tension and establishes this season as a creepy force of nature that won’t let go. The house in the first season may have been terrifying, but in Asylum they up the ante in terms of creepy environments.The disturbing title sequence will no doubt send shivers down the spine with its mix of gruesome experiments, stormy weather and ambiguous religious icons to the strains of the eerie theme song. Asylum exploits the deep fear of being locked away and not being believed with Lana as the embodiment of the audience’s concern. The 60′s setting allows Asylum to delve into taboos and social issues of the time, such as lesbianism, abuse of power and prejudice. It may be just a show, but Asylum does show in sometimes graphic detail how misunderstood and intolerant people were about mental health back then and how far we have come today. Religion and hypocrisy surrounding it comes under the spotlight in even more uncomfortable terms as the clash between faith and passion arises within the many members of staff as events spiral out of control .Once again American Horror Story isn’t afraid to push boundaries and make for disturbing viewing. It is almost certain that you won’t be sleeping soundly after viewing Asylum.
With members of the first season cast returning as well as newcomers, Asylum more than delivers on the acting front and adds another jolt of terror into an already scary brew of chills and carnage. Sarah Paulson makes for a relatable central heroine in Lana, with her melding of brutalised fear and burgeoning strength, as her yearning for escape increases and she tries anything to free herself from confinement. Jessica Lange once again steals the show, this time as the cruel and vicious Sister Jude. Yet rather than make her a one-dimensional monster, Lange fleshes out the character to show her vulnerability and regret for her past actions. Initially a boozy lounge singer, she became a nun after her involvement in a hit and run accident. Through her vows, she tries to atone for her crimes but realises she can’t run from her past forever. Lange runs the gamut of emotions from A to Z and delivers very impressive work. Lily Rabe comes a close second with her bewitching and challenging role as the novice Sister Mary Eunice. At first she is a sweet-faced and caring girl who wants to impress Sister Jude, but after her possession she morphs into something very different as her innocence is poisoned with the taint of evil. A sly, sexually provocative and twisted woman, she now delights in tormenting those around her as she slips out of her innocent nun’s habit and into the personification of the Devil. Rabe carefully shows this transformation with subtle assurance that is very unsettling to watch. Evan Peters is fearful and confused as the accused Kit, whose story of abduction starts to play a big part as the season goes on. James Cromwell is evil personified as the sinister and imposing Dr. Arden, whose experiments get out of control as his mental state crumbles and his treacherous past comes back to bite him. Joseph Fiennes makes for a self-righteous and beatific presence as the Monsignor in over his head, while Zachary Quinto subtly contributes care yet a bristling menace to his role as the new psychiatrist. Lizzie Brocheré and Chloë Sevigny are also effective as two of the inmates at the asylum;Brocheré adding mystery and whispery uncertainty and Sevigny with her mix of sexuality and fear. Frances Conroy is impressively ethereal and wise as the Angel of Death, who makes many appearances towards the end of the season.
Unpredictable and filled with many twists along the way, Asylum is a provocative and terrifying entry into the American Horror Story canon.