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'American Horror Story' brings the haunting home

The Associated Press, Friday, September 30, 2011, 6:18am (PDT)

NEW YORK — Just when you needed it, the FX network is throwing "American Horror Story" at you.

To judge from its first two episodes, it's a robust diversion from the real-life droughts and hurricanes, joblessness and political stalemate that were already giving you the willies. It aspires to be "The Shining"-meets-"Rose mary's Baby," with "Carrie" and "Don't Look Now" tossed in. But more than a dead-on horror show, it's a homage to cinematic spookery. And a good one.

In short, "American Horror Story" doesn't really scare you. It just gets in your head.

The big unknown: Is it wily enough to stay there, week after week?

Alert: Spoilers coming up — which is another way of saying you might just as well apply the time you'd spend reading this to watching the premiere (which airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT), then making up your own mind. You'll find it a memorable experience, at least.

From the fertile imaginations of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk ("Glee," "Nip/Tuck"), "American Horror Story" has a premise that is simple and time-honored: A haunted house is occupied by a likable, remarkably unsuspecting family.

Ben Harmon (played by Dylan McDermott) is a Boston psychiatrist who has been caught cheating by his wife, Vivien (the wonderful Connie Britton of "Friday Night Lights"). She already was reeling from a late-term miscarriage. They need to make a fresh start. They and their teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga) pull up stakes and head cross-country for Los Angeles.

"This place is our second chance," Ben tells Vivien, whose forgiveness he desperately seeks — if for no other reason than because she hasn't slept with him for almost a year.

This place, the family's new homestead, is a looming "classic L.A. Victorian from the 1920s," according to the real-estate agent showing them around. But it seems more like a vestige of "Monster Chiller Horror Theater," a domicile whose past residents have, of course, died gruesomely.

Sold!

If the elements of this horror story seem second-nature (there are also creaking doors and jars of icky lab specimens in the basement), they take the form of striking imagery that, at times, makes them as unsettling as they are familiar.

It need hardly be mentioned that the house, restored from its previous ramshackle condition, retains disturbing artifacts upon which the Harmons will stumble. For example, a fetishist's vinyl bodysuit, complete with hood, is found hanging in the attic, with kinky consequences.

The house also comes with strange neighbors. Jessica Lange plays Constance, a busybody Southern belle with an even more intrusive daughter, Adelaide, who (like Jamie Brewer, portraying her splendidly) has Down syndrome. Adult but childlike, the irrepressible Adelaide keeps busting into the Harmon's home.

"Addie will always find a way in," Constance tells Vivien matter-of-factly. "She has a bug up her ass about this house. Always has."

With his practice set up in the family home, Dr. Harmon's ill-advised first client is a teen psychopath (Evan Peters), who bonds with the Harmons' troubled daughter after they meet cute (if bizarrely) in the bathroom, where she's cutting herself.

That's not all the weirdness in store. Did we mention Moira, the longtime housekeeper (played by Frances Conroy, past matriarch of "Six Feet Under")? She's the sort of spectral figure who warns these new owners that the house "has a personality; feelings. Mistreat it and you'll regret it."

But Ben sees Moira another way. Spinsterish, middle-aged Moira appears to him as "Moira, Jr." (played by Alexandra Breckenridge), a sexy young temptress with a scanty French-maid outfit and a come-on look.

This problematic illusion sparks the premiere's raciest interlude. Emerging nude from the shower, Ben spies Young Moira alone in a bedroom pleasuring herself. Inflamed by the vision, he retreats to another room, still in the buff, where, moaning and whimpering, he gets himself off vividly.

Speaking of flames, the house seems to impose pyromania on those who inhabit it. Just consider former resident Larry Harvey (played by Dennis O'Hare), who a while back incinerated his entire family, then emerged with grotesque scars from the inferno he set.

Could such an incident repeat itself with the Harmons? Ben, suddenly seized by the urge to strike matches while sleepwalking, seems, under the house's spell, to be a firebug in the making.

The premiere dumps a number of major questions on the audience, including the most fundamental: Why do the Harmons stick around in this crazy house? By the end of the second episode, Vivien is already fed up. She's ready to vacate. And no member of the audience would argue with her.

So who knows what the future will bring for "American Horror Story"? Can it continue to jolt and engage the audience? Will the rationale for keeping the Harmons chilled in their macabre manse be sufficient to keep viewers coming back every week?

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Online:

http://www.fxnetworks.com/shows/originals/ahs/

http://www.youregoingtodieinthere.com

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier

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