Witches! Zombies! Beastiality! Voodoo! Incest!
Seasons one and two of American Horror Story were a hit and miss affair. The first season was a fresh take on an urban horror tale, but the second slipped into murky messing with religious iconography, extra-terrestrials and riffs on mental health in horror. What has saved it has been its use of an excellent recurring cast and some strong themes around gender, sexuality and good old fashioned gore.
The creators have taken a deeper look at gender and sexuality in their latest offering, Coven. With a virtually entirely female cast, focusing on a story populated by witches and black magic. Not content with the already glittering cast, they have also added Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Gaborey Sidibe and Emma Roberts to the mix. Set in New Orleans the timeline jumps from the 1830s to the present day, following the lives of a range of women with unique gifts.
The always excellent Jessica Lange plays Fiona, the witch Supreme, who returns home to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Girls, a kind of Professor Xavier’s Academy for witches. Four young witches reside in the school, exploring their powers while facing the normal dilemmas of teenage life. Emma Roberts plays teen-queen movie star Madison, who early on befriends new girl Zoe (Taissa Farmiga). They are joined by Nan, a clairvoyant (great to see Jamie Brewer again) and Queenie (Gaborey Sidibie) as a human voodoo doll.
Running parallel to this is the tale of Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) and her reign of terror over her house slaves in the 1830s. As the tale unfolds it becomes clear that Delphine and Fiona’s fates are intertwined, along with that of Angela Bassett’s priestess Marie Laveau.
Aside from the magic, which being AHS takes a distinctly sinister turn, the series is looking at some interesting issues for women- fertility, appearance, sexuality, all in a fairly smart way. However, as well as being smart and stylish it is also by turns bonkers and borderline camp (see Fiona saying to her daughter “Don’t make me drop a house on you”). The sections depicting magic are marked out by odd Vaseline smeared and oddly angled cameras, and some of the characters are pure John Waters. In particular, the Stevie Nicks obsessed eco-witch Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who wafts around the swamps of New Orleans with magnificently shaggy hair and flowing skirts.
Men on the show are in somewhat short supply. Series regular Evan Peters appears as an affable jock early on, but soon finds his role taking a predictably sinister turn, leaving him as a base, primal sum of his boy parts. Denis O’Hare, who appeared in series one, has so far only been a sinister figure lurking in doorways. Other than that you only have men in the form of jock-rapists, boy-toy neighbours and a very angry minotaur. As you’d expect, Coven is definitely the territory of women, and shows some interesting switching of traditional gender roles.
Three episodes in and American Horror Story is keeping with the formula of sex, death and shock which has kept it on the air this long, but this time seems to be adding a more intelligent edge. I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series unfolds, but if any aliens appear I’m out.