First episode impressions: ‘American Horror Story: 1984’ (TV review)


merican Horror Story: 1984″ (Wednesdays, FX) is an unapologetic, unfettered case of giving people what they want: A straight-up slasher series in the mode of the “Friday the 13th” films, right down to the summer camp setting. The first of the 10 episodes, “Camp Redwood,” slathers on Eighties trappings like freeze-frames and grainy cinematography. We see the POV of a girl lifting her shirt over her head, and when her vision is cleared, her two kissing friends have been stabbed by a giant knife, their faces pinned together. It’s darkly funny — as is certainly intended by writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, in their ninth season helming this repertory anthology series — but it’s also cleverly brutal enough that we know “1984” respects its genre.

Other elements are less clever and more “What the heck.” For instance, the whole setup. After an L.A. aerobics class, Xavier (Cody Fern) tells his classmates he’s headed up to Camp Redwood tomorrow to start his summer counselor job. Before long, he has invited everyone else along to be counselors, without clearing it with his boss. Even at the most laid-back of jobs in the more innocent time of the Eighties, that’s not how things work. But they do work this way in B-grade slasher films, and I suspect the sketchy writing is part of the joke.

“AHS: 1984” is darkly funny — as is certainly intended — but it’s also cleverly brutal enough that we  know it respects its genre.

Rounding out the counselors: Emma Roberts, who played a very different slasher role in the ridiculous “Scream Queens,” is Brooke, the virginal audience surrogate. Billie Lourde is Montana, a big-haired 1980s sexpot. Gus Kenworthy is Chet, who is angry about being kicked off Team USA for failing a drug test.

“Glee’s” Matthew Morrison is Trevor, whose main character trait is (no joke) his large package (or “mound” in the era’s slang); is this playing against the old slasher trope of female objectification? DeRon Horton is Ray and Angelica Ross is nurse Rita; will they be early victims of the killer because they are black, fitting with the old trope?

Leslie Grossman, whose work with Murphy and Falchuk dates back to “Popular,” is the strictly religious camp owner. John Carroll Lynch — a veteran of these types of roles — is the villainous local boogeyman Mr. Jingles, named for his jingling ring of keys. “X-Files” veteran Mitch Pileggi is on hand as the director of the madhouse from which Jingles escapes.

“Camp Redwood” is a showcase of how “AHS” knows how to do this genre, honoring it yet slightly making fun of it. It would be amusing if “1984” had more gratuitous nudity (fans of Morrison’s butt are the only beneficiaries so far), but I understand its hands might be tied in that regard. There is the slightest bit of mystery, in that Brooke is being stalked by a guy who seemingly wants to steal jewelry from her, but maybe there’s more to that.

But can “1984” keep up its momentum? A lot of series that mimic old styles don’t keep it up. “Blood Drive,” for instance, nicely leans into its grindhouse style early on, but is shot like any other show as it goes forward. I suspect the same thing will happen here. As good as the 1984 vibe is, it’s also clear that the crew is using modern equipment and computer filters, and it’s in widescreen format. I wouldn’t be surprised if the showrunners become less interested in capturing the visual style we associate with the time period as these 10 episodes roll out.

I suspect the story will get better, though. Upcoming episodes are written by James Wong and Tim Minear — both experts in small-screen horror — and Dan Dworkin, who worked on the “Scream” TV series when it was good. The story could turn in just about any direction; we haven’t met any of the young campers yet, for one thing, nor do we know if the story will even get to that point.

“AHS: 1984” is treading ground we love, but it’s very familiar ground. At least two other recent series have done a 1980s slasher throwback. “1984” has a low bar to clear to improve on “Dead of Summer,” which is set in the 1980s but doesn’t capture the vibe very well. It has a higher bar to clear with “Slasher” Season 2, which is set in present day but tells an excellent mystery story about camp counselors haunted by a past event.

It’s too soon to say what direction of quality “AHS: 1984” will go in, but it’s off to a great start and has the writing-room pedigree to do this thing right.