American Horror Story: Asylum [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (29th December 2013).
The Show

Dark, dirty, disturbing, depraved. Oh, and did I mention absolutely, delightfully, insane? The second season of Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology series “American Horror Story” is crazier than even the inmates locked up in the asylum at the center of its story. The set of 13 episodes that comprise the sophomore season, appropriately subtitled “Asylum”, are a definite improvement over the first in at least one way: overall creepiness. That’s not to say the debut season of “American Horror”—a self-contained story; a miniseries about a haunted house in Los Angeles, and the sorry souls who will forever inhabit it, in familial misery, for eternity—wasn’t creepy. It was; surrounding its simple gothic ghost story with touches of classic Hollywood horror, sordid elements of the supernatural, and framing it with the bizarre BDSM visuals of a mystery man in the rubbery black leather of a gimp suit. But “Asylum” is creepy—and, sometimes, just wrong—in a way that I never imagined I’d see on television, even on reasonably uncensored basic cable programmer FX.

In the special features of this Blu-ray, actor James Cromwell, who co-stars in “Asylum” as Arthur Arden, a maniacal medical doctor in charge of patient “care” at the Briarcliff sanitarium—(in actuality, Arden is hardly caring; more like a cross between Victor Frankenstein and Josef Mengele)—calls the season “a potpourri of horrible things.” Indeed, it is. The second series is a collection of veritable horribleness, a reconfiguring of well-worn horror genre clichés, mixing the totally sane fear of institutionalization, and wrongful imprisonment, with a pastiche of almost every horror trope under the sun—serial killers, monsters, demonic possession… and even aliens, and Nazis (and Anne Frank, oh my!).

The setting is Briarcliff, a turn of the 20th century manor that became a tuberculosis ward, and was then bought by the Catholic Church and turned into an asylum for the criminally insane. The time period: the early 1960's, with a dual narrative thread running concurrently in an unidentified year only labeled in passing as the “Present Day”. Inspired by the anthology horror productions of their youth—particularly “Creepshow” (1982) and both the film and television versions of “Tales From the Crypt” (1972; 1989-1996)—Murphy and his co-creator Brad Falchuk returned to the network that gave them similarly unbound freedom on “Nip/Tuck” (2003-2010) to produce a series that has more in common with repertory theatre—albeit funnelled through the budget of a blockbuster feature film—than traditional television. Unlike most fictionalized narratives on broadcast and cable, each run of “American Horror Story” has very little in common with the last. In fact, it has nothing in common, aside from the cast—resetting after each season, with a new story, new location, and new characters. Actors like Zachary Quinto and the incomparable Jessica Lange return to season two of “American Horror”, but in entirely different capacities, creating all new personalities to play fresh characters in a new story.

In “Asylum”, Quinto—who played a camp man jilted by his cheating boyfriend—puts on some thick-framed specs, and displays a disquieting calmness as Dr. Oliver Thredson, a progressive psychiatrist who believes homosexuality can be cured by aversion therapy. Meanwhile, Lange plays Sister Jude, a hard-nosed nun—the chief disciplinarian and head administrator of Briarcliff, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. Lange is magnificent, with a perfect New England accent; channeling appropriate menace (and later, a distressing vulnerability) as the series’ main antagonist.

In the present day, newlyweds Teresa and Leo Morrison (Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Adam Levine; mercifully in but a few scenes) explore the dilapidated and legendary asylum, which has fallen to disrepair since it was closed in 1972. The story goes that Briarcliff was once home to the infamous Bloody Face killer—an Ed Gein-esque murderer of women—whom some claimed wore a mask made of human skin while he sliced and diced his victims. In 1964, Kit Walker (Evan Peters; aging up, after playing a homicidal high schooler in season one, to fit the role of a newly married mechanic) is arrested for the murder of his young wife, and suspected of being Bloody Face. Kit claims he isn’t Bloody Face, and that he didn’t kill his wife. In fact, his wife is not dead, but simply disappeared, and was abducted by aliens (which we, the audience, know is partly true; Walker’s wife is taken in a bight light, very likely aliens). Seen as most certainly not sane by most members of society, Kit is immediately incarcerated at Briarcliff, where he is to stay until proven innocent, or, more likely, found guilty by a court of law and fried in the electric chair for his crimes. Reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson)—a closet lesbian, living a very “The Children’s Hour” (1961) like existence with her elementary school teacher girlfriend, Wendy (Clea DuVall)—goes undercover with the hopes of getting an interview with Walker; the inside scoop on the man they call Bloody Face. And indeed, a scoop she gets. Once inside, Winters witnesses all kinds of atrocities, ranging from merely mistreated patients to outright crimes against humanity. Lana realizes the story is much, much bigger than the Bloody Face killer. The conditions of Briarcliff—and rampant corruption within the group of doctors, nuns and priests that run it—is far more terrifying than any single infamous inmate will ever be. But in a terrible twist of fate, when Lana’s exposed as both an investigative journalist and worse, a lesbian (remember, in the early 1960's, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the psychiatric community), she is locked up, made a patient herself.

“Asylum’s” issues—and it does have a few—truly seems inconsequential when considering the incredible performances from Quinto, an against-type Cromwell, Paulson, the lovely Lange, who continues to go to depths in the series few actresses would ever let themselves be seen, and many others even in bit parts. And the overall technical prowess of the production—and its superiority over much on television—must also be praised. The production value is feature-film quality. With fantastic period design, incredibly effective and effusive cinematography by Christopher Baffa, and skillful direction by TV vets Michael Uppendahl, Michael Rymer, Michael Lehmann, and Murphy-Falchuk’s current wonder-boy, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon—who’s episodes are among the most stylized in the season—among others, "Asylum" and “American Horror Story” as a whole is certainly one of best looking things on the small screen right now.

When it first aired, “American Horror's” second story took a beating from critics for its wild shifts of narrative, inconsistent plotting, rotating cast of characters, and for generally being an unfocused mess. Indeed, the first half of “Asylum” is inconsistent. Rather liquid, lacking solid rooting. Instead of being tightly written, at first glance, it appears as if made up on the fly. Worse it sort of seems as though the writers—a staff which includes some of the same talent involved with the problematically scripted “Glee” (2009-present); plus Tim Minear, and James Wong—shot every horror staple in the gun at a wall to see what would stick. As it aired, I noted these issues. Especially compared to the simpler, less ambitious, first season, the second seemed messy. But playing it back without having to wait a week or two between constant cliffhangers, events play much better. The at-times wandering plot, the various side stories, are more like fleshed out parts of a really densely written novel. The main plot comes later, mostly in the second half—the first is more about establishing the characters and their world. Setting the mood, the tone. Whether it was intentional or not, “Asylum” is written not unlike a Stephen King novel. Although an anthology series—in the sense that each season is different, not each episode—“Asylum” is intensely serialized, exploiting the television medium to tell a meaty 10-hour-plus tale with one beginning, middle and a very definite end. In simple terms, the second season of “American Horror” is a story of good vs. evil—a power play between the neutral-good Sister Jude and the evil Arden. Between Catholic religiosity and the Devil (taking many forms, but mostly in a possessed nun, Sister Mary Eunice, played with chilling malevolence by Lily Rabe). A battle between sanity and insanity, and even life and death, all wrapped in the well-worn cloth of the horror genre.

“American Horror Story: Asylum” includes all 13 episodes from the second season of the anthology series on three discs. Discs one and two house five episodes each; the third platter contains the final three episodes. Fox has authored each Blu-ray with a variety of playback options, including a "Season Mode" that is quite useful when marathoning the series over a few sittings. Episodes run approximately 40 to 47 minutes in length. Episodes include:

- "Welcome to Briarcliff"—An insane asylum plays host to a deranged serial killer stalking the borders between insanity and reality. In present day, a newlywed couple explores the now-abandoned Briarcliff Manor, a former asylum in rural Massachusetts. Flashbacks to 1964 show Kit Walker, a young man accused of being the infamous serial killer “Bloody Face”, in his first days of incarceration. He meets, and befriends, a fellow inmate named Grace (Lizzie Brocheré). Much to Kit's surprise, Grace claims to have been abducted by aliens. Meanwhile, journalist Lana Winters trespasses onto Briarcliff, intent on exposing its mistreatment of inmates, but is imprisoned there herself to keep secrets from getting out. And a bitter rivalry is ignited between the asylum’s administrator Sister Jude and doctor Arthur Arden, a sadist who uses torture and murder in his quest to discover the secret of madness.

- “Tricks and Treats”—In 1964, the staff of Briarcliff summon an exorcist to deal with a possessed farm boy; in the chaos of an attempted exorcism, the demon ultimately (albeit unknowingly to those even in proximity) transfers itself to a young nun who works in the asylum. Meanwhile, a kind and progressive doctor named Oliver Thredson interviews Kit to determine if he’s competent to strand trial for the Bloody Face murders. Kit insists he didn’t kill anyone, and when Bloody Face strikes again, while Walker is locked up, Thredson is inclined to believe him.

- “Nor’easter”—A storm is brewing, and Sister Jude decides to throw a “Movie Night” to distract and calm the inmates. Kit, Grace, and oversexed inmate Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) hatch a plan to escape. Lana finds an ally in Dr. Thredson. And the possessed Sister Mary Eunice begins her corruption of the asylum, killing a female patient, seducing Arden, and begins slowly driving Jude insane by hinting at her past transgressions. In the present day, hoodlums (and quite possibly Bloody Face himself) “haunt” the young couple exploring the nightmarish halls of Briarcliff.

- “I Am Anne Frank, Part 1”—A woman (Franka Potente) identifying herself as Anne Frank is brought into the asylum. “Anne” immediately panics upon seeing Dr. Arden, whom she believes is actually Hans Grüper, a Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews in the death camps she claims to have barely survived. Meanwhile, Kit—going slowly insane—wonders if he is, in fact, Bloody Face and is simply misremembering what really happened the night his wife disappeared. Lana and Thredson make a deal.

- “I Am Anne Frank, Part 2”—Sister Jude hires a man named Sam Goodman (guest star Mark Margolis), a famed Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, to build a case against Arden. Meanwhile, the husband of the woman claiming to be Anne Frank brings her back to Briarcliff, where Arden offers to fix her once and for all. And Thredson convinces Kit to confess to the Bloody Face murders, and helps Lana escape—but he has ulterior motives.

- “The Origins of Monstrosity”—A mysterious young girl (Nikki Hahn) becomes a new patient at Briarcliff after her mother believes she has killed someone. When Sister Jude turns to her superior, Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), for guidance over what to do about Dr. Arden, Howard makes a deal with Arden he’ll live to regret. Elsewhere, Lana remains a hostage of the Bloody Face killer, who enlightens her about his past. In present day, police arrive at the asylum to discover three bodies; it appears Bloody Face is back and killing again.

- “Dark Cousin”—The Angel of Death (Frances Conroy) appears in the asylum when several patients, including Grace, wish to die. Sister Jude plans to use the angel’s services but must first repent for a grave misdeed in her previous life, before she was a woman of the cloth, and known simply as Judy Martin. Lana is able to get away from her captor, but is injured in a freak car accident and taken back to Briarcliff. Meanwhile, Kit Walker awaits trial for the Bloody Face murders he's now certain he didn’t commit, and plots an escape.

- “Unholy Night”—On Christmas Eve, a patient dressed as Santa (Ian McShane) stirs up trouble at Briarcliff and seeks revenge on Jude for locking him away in solitary confinement for a year, after he committed a murder during the Christmas festivities of 1963. Also, Lana reunites with Kit—who has returned to the asylum to save Grace—and reveals the real identity of the Bloody Face killer.

- “The Coat Hanger”—Lana learns she’s pregnant with her kidnapper's child; she does not intend to keep it, at all cost. Kit tricks Thredson into confessing that he is Bloody Face. Sister Jude gets officially removed from her position as administrator of Briarcliff, and is admitted as a patient. The Monsignor must face an unbeliever alone. In the modern day, the Bloody Face copycat, Johnny (Dylan McDermott), attends a therapy session.

- “The Name Game”—Now a patient, and known by her common name, Judy, Sister Jude gets subjected to the asylum's inhumane treatments. From within the asylum, Kit and Lana continue to pressure the Bloody Face killer. A pregnant Grace goes into labor, and a baby boy is born. Monsignor Howard attempts to remove the demon from inside Sister Mary Eunice. And Dr. Arden puts an end to his experiments… once and for all.

- “Spilt Milk”—With Jude’s help, Mother Superior Claudia (Barbara Tarbuck) manages to get Lana out of the asylum; Lana promptly exposes the crimes of Briarcliff and the monstrous Bloody Face, and gets revenge on her kidnapper. Kit, Grace and their son are set free. Despite all that’s happened, Briarcliff remains open—although the Church no longer runs it—and Jude is still an inmate.

- “Continuum”—1966. Two years after his release from Briarcliff, Kit must deal with his new life as husband and father. Left to her own demons inside the rotting walls of the dilapidated asylum, Jude, buried under bureaucratic red tape and assuming the false identity of Betty Drake, slips further into insanity. In 1969, Lana publishes a sensationalized tell-all book about her ordeal with the Bloody Face killer and the Briarcliff asylum. In the present day, Johnny seeks out a copy of the book and continues his father's murderous “work”.

- “Madness Ends”—In the present day, Lana Winters, now older and a famous, out-and-proud television reporter and renowned author, grants an interview in which she discusses the past 40 years of her life and career. She comes clean about her crusade to close down Briarcliff, expose Arthur Arden as a Nazi war criminal, disgrace the Church and the Monsignor, and what really happened during her attempts to rescue “Sister” Judy Martin from certain death and reunite with Kit Walker and his family. Meanwhile, Johnny Thredson intends to finish what his father started decades earlier.

Video

On one hand, Fox’s 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p AVC MPEG-4 24/fps encoded high-def transfer is quite impressive, and faithfully reflects “American Horror Story’s” erratic and incredibly stylized 35mm photography to a fault. On the other, “Asylum” sports quite an… unconventional appearance that makes the three discs difficult to grade. An ever-changing visual aesthetic—if always dark, and with the camera usually placed at an odd, obtuse Dutch angle—is at the mercy of whatever tricks and tools the rotating directors and cinematographer Christopher Baffa chose to work with throughout the season, and in certain episodes, to conjure up and set the period or enhance the mood. Diffusion filters and glowing, gauzy lighting permeate the 60's scenes, while the modern day sequences—especially the nightmarish framing device with the couple—sport a sharp, super-saturated look. Snippets of Anne Frank at home with her husband come in at decidedly standard definition quality, replete with "lines" of resolution, faint ringing and chromatic aberration, like they’re straight out of a twisted sitcom, viewed through awful low-def Kinescopes. Later, when Lana Winters returns to Briarcliff in the late 1960's with a camera crew for a television exposé of Briarcliff sanitarium, the footage is stylized with thick grain, and narrow 1.37:1 framing, to authentically sell it as 16mm shot for a documentary. In a variety of various different scenarios, colors bleed, whites bloom; shadows swallow actors in rampant crush. Detail is all over the place, at the mercy of the lenses. Split-focus diopters, and disorienting extreme wide-angle, place parts of the frame in opaque blurriness. It’s hard to say what flaws of the presentation are the result of creator intentions, and what’s merely manifested through compression and authoring. I’ll err on the side of caution and say, maybe a bit of both? I'm sure “Asylum” looks how it’s supposed to, but it certainly isn’t always (in fact, rarely ever) a pretty picture.

Audio

“Asylum’s” English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (48kHz/24-bit) is much easier to appreciate. It's an eerie, atmospheric affair. Everything about the audio seems to have been meticulously manufactured to maximize the creep-factor; silence, which is as dominant as a hailstorm of noise with equal measure, lulls the listener into a sense of safety, but completely obliterating that safeness with a boisterous boost of bombast. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening title sequence of each episode, which blasts speaker-destroying distortion between deafening silences of white noise. Dialogue reproduction is excellent, and Foley effects—the maddening minutiae of a poorly maintained nuthouse, from clinking locks and horrible howling inmates to subtler sounds like slight water droplets from an un-tightened sink tap—populate the mix, filling sides and surrounds nicely. Each episode has at least one major sonic set piece; a dominating downpour in “Nor’easter”, the musical number set to the “Name Game” in episode of the same name. Series composer James S. Levine supplies the score, replacing the sounds of iconic film scores that made up most f the first season’s soundtrack—which had a particular fondness for repurposing famous Bernard Hermann themes—with more of his own work. Both period-accurate and anachronistic popular music is used extensively throughout the season as well. By “Asylum’s” end, the constant playing of the French-language version of “Dominique” (by The Singing Nun, Jeanine Deckers) will drive anyone up the wall. It goes beyond being an “ear-worm”; the worm lays brain-burrowing larvae that if left untreated with surely have many fans well on their to outright insanity, looking for a place in an asylum. Optional subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish, and French.

Extras

“American Horror Story: Asylum” includes a slim selection of supplements, several inconsequential deleted scenes and some decent featurettes among them. Fox has authored the Blu-ray discs with a resume playback function. The set also includes "Season Mode" feature, which makes marathoning episode after episode a breeze.

DISC ONE:

This disc contains no extras.

DISC TWO:

The second disc contains two deleted scenes (1.78:1 1080p; 2 minutes 54 seconds)—a graphic scene in which Bloody Face tortures a victim; an inconsequential moment with the Monsignor and a possessed Sister Mary Eunice.

DISC THREE:

The final disc includes most of the extras, including a few must-watch featurettes that make for a surprisingly comprehensive multi-part making of.

Up first are two deleted scenes (1.78:1 1080p; 4 minutes)—a redundant sequence in which the Monsignor discusses Arden’s sudden disappearance and the possibility of Jude’s release; a superfluous dream sequence in which Lana communes with Wendy, her dead girlfriend.

“The Orderly” (1.78:1 1080p; 9 minutes) is not one of the set’s essential extras; in fact, it’s kind of stupid. The featurette is simply a set tour, done up like the sort of thing that'd play before (or during) a ride at Disneyland. The camera offers viewers a first person view inside Briarcliff, as they're guided around by an annoying orderly.

Far more interesting than anything else offered in season two's supplements are three making-of featurettes.

The first of these is titled “What Is American Horror Story: Asylum?” (1.78:1 1080p; 21 minutes 55 seconds). The featurette offers an extensive overview of “American Horry Story's" second season—with an introduction to and discussion of the 1960's asylum setting, the dual timeline narrative, the casting, the writing, etc.

Next, a featurette titled “Welcome to Briarcliff” (1.78:1 1080p; 15 minutes 4 seconds) offers a look at the series’ period production design, with specific attention to the 60's aesthetic and the asylum set (the latter sort of renders that tour feature useless).

Finally, “The Creatures” (1.78:1 1080p; 14 minutes 49 seconds) is all about the make up and prosthetic effects provided by Tinsley Studio. The featurette is surprisingly in depth, with the artists discussing how they brought Arden’s monsters (particularly, the poor, poor Shelley) and Pepper the Pinhead (Naomi Grossman) to life.

Packaging

“American Horror Story: Asylum” escapes onto Blu-ray in a three disc set from Fox Home Entertainment. The region free dual layered BD-50s are housed in an elite keep case; each platter is mounted on a flip spindle. A cardboard slip-cover has been included in first pressings.

Overall

“American Horror Story: Asylum”, the second season of Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology series for the FX Network, is most certainly certifiably insane; mad; borderline psychotic; schizophrenic. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Sure, the story is all over the place in the first half, but it comes together nicely in the end. And the fantastic period production value, superb acting, and general creepiness (overall an improvement over an already solid first season) more than make up for the slightly sloppy scripting. The Blu-ray features a faithful, if mostly unattractive video transfer, and a fantastic soundtrack. A trio of featurettes make up for an otherwise disappointing supplemental package. Highly recommended.

The Show: B+ Video: B Audio: A Extras: C Overall: B+

 


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