Thursday, July 29, 2021

[Review] “American Horror Stories”: Danny Trejo Stars as Killer Santa in “The Naughty List”, a Mixed Bag That’s Filled With More Coal Than Toys

American Horror Stories conjures inspired scares with a murderous Santa, but falls flat with its vile cast of social media-obsessed Grinches.

“We’re not just gonna sit here, Barry. We’re gonna record it.”

I love Killer Santas.

There’s something absolutely twisted about the perversion of this symbol of purity and childhood innocence, whether it’s through the “actual figure” of Santa or some unstable individual who’s chosen to hide behind this comforting image. Killer Santa stories represent some of the most lurid and entertaining B-horror, whether it’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, the formative To All a Good Night, or Robert Zemeckis’ iconic Tales from the Crypt episode, “And All Through The House.” It’s even territory that American Horror Story scrutinizes in its Asylum season. 

A Killer Santa is a simple enough horror premise that it doesn’t need to be overly deconstructed, yet American Horror Stories pairs it together with social media influencer territory. Likes and subscriptions can function as virtual equivalents to Santa’s naughty and nice lists, albeit in a much more public forum where mob mentality has the power to amend Santa’s decisions, so to speak. Sometimes the millennial demographic that Ryan Murphy seems so desperate to cater towards with his horror content can be frustrating, but the story in “The Naughty List” properly makes use of this sect of people and finds a relevant horror story that exploits the toxic nature of influencers. However, despite the solid synthesis between these ideas, “The Naughty List” re-gifts old horror tropes and suffers from tinsel-thin characters that represent some of the worst habits within the larger American Horror Story universe.

“The Naughty List” throws audiences into Hot Bro Summer and subjects them to the caricatures that populate the social media cesspool, Bro House. Their prank-centric way of life has worked for them so far, but with all of the Bros approaching 30–a death sentence for any influencer–they’re desperate to find ways to remain relevant. This lights a fire under everyone and their reactionary efforts push the episode into a “ripped from the Insta-Stories” direction where it riffs on the very real controversy that (briefly) consumed Logan Paul when he tried to turn an act of tragedy into entertaining “content” (also see the series finale of Seinfeld for anyone that’s not hip to social media personalities and needs a non-millennial reference point). 

It’s hard to not be slightly cynical that genre anthology television shows used to deliver powerful episodes that were parables for the Cold War or McCarthyism and they’ve now set their sights on social media controversy. I’m being somewhat glib here and this episode’s plot definitely fits American Horror Stories’ wheelhouse and demographic. It just results in the type of story that almost immediately feels disposable rather than the best societal metaphors that can remain evergreen.

The Bro House streams someone’s suicide in a desperate bid for attention and the rest of the episode chronicles the avalanche of negativity that comes from this decision. Strangely enough, “The Naughty List” acknowledges real-life gaffes by influencers and social media celebrities. The episode exists in a universe where these characters are well aware of the backlash that follows from such behavior, which weakens this premise. These characters function with cocky invincibility while they preach about how the times have changed, but if anything there’s an even itchier trigger finger that cocks the gun that is cancel culture. “The Naughty List” tries to have its cake and then stream the eating of it too, but the episode’s acknowledgments over the character’s ill-advised behavior doesn’t make it any more palatable.

“The Naughty List” scratches at the surface of compelling territory with its commentary upon the grind that influencers and “content creators” find themselves in. American Horror Stories reflects the stress that’s felt from the hoops that need to constantly be jumped through in efforts to remain at the top of the trending lists and not replaced by the flashier personalities that come around. These can be real “problems” for people in this field, but “The Naughty List” fails to show anyone in the Bro House struggling for inspiration before they turn to their macabre business plan. The episode never makes it feel as if the Bro House ever experiences significant burnout that’s worthy of sympathy. 

What is helpful throughout “The Naughty List” is that there are some members of the Bro House that at least express the bare minimum of reservations through every step of the process, right down to the initial recording of the video to whether it should get posted online. It’s necessary for some members of the Bro House to actually know what empathy is and to be more concerned about human decency than subscriber numbers. These meek protests ultimately can’t withstand the leader’s brassy attitude that pushes the group into deeper trouble with each decision that they make.

The first half of “The Naughty List” is pretty insufferable and nothing that gets said with its cancel culture or apology tour commentary hasn’t already been explored more eloquently somewhere else. It’s a disappointment that “The Naughty List” is satisfied with this surface-level analysis, but it does at least make the audience quite eager to see these idiots get murdered in the episode’s concluding half. It’s just their latest offensive, egotistical tirade that sets off Santa (Danny Trejo), but the audience has even more time to grow to resent them. They’re already at a point that’s beyond reprehensible before they go about ruining the illusion of Santa Claus for a bunch of unsuspecting children. 

The episode definitely wants the audience to take glee in the domino effect of misfortune that plays out for the Bro House in the final act. It’s a risky maneuver to have an episode that’s largely lacking in enjoyable characters, but it does provide a change of pace from the other American Horror Stories episodes where the audience roots for the characters to perish rather than survive. This perspective is appropriate with the episode’s Christmas angle and it makes “The Naughty List” feel more like a holiday fable with the Bro House’s actions acting as a cautionary lesson. This slightly improves the episode, but there’s still an imbalance present where too much time is spent with these egregious characters.

The social media influencer material remains half-baked, but at least the Killer Santa material delivers. Danny Trejo adopts a less is more approach and at times it feels like he’s doing his best Kane Hodder impression while he looms in the distance as a bloody St. Nick. For a series that’s so obsessed with callbacks, it’s a little surprising that “The Naughty List” doesn’t recruit Ian McShane to reprise his Murder Santa from AHS: Asylum, but it’s entirely possible the actor wasn’t available. Regardless, Trejo doesn’t necessarily feel like a downgrade.

The murders are brutally gruesome and well-done, which easily makes them the episode’s saving grace. The Christmas lights pool electrocution takes a familiar Christmas-based murder item and does something new with it and the neck snap and what shows of the spine is beautifully handled and low key brutality done right. The final setpiece is also the type of twisted imagery that would show up in a Christmas Special of Hannibal. These grisly moments shine and are arguably why people are watching, but they’re still not enough to justify the bulk of the episode. But hey, at least they all go out like bosses. Watching your friends die isn’t so bad when it’s sponsored by Kraken Energy Drink.

It’s also a clever development to have the Bro House murders get uploaded to their channel so that the two contrasting ideas that are at odds in the episode can better come together. Some of the more thoughtful material that comes out of “The Naughty List” involves how the group’s sadistic deaths generate more likes and positive comments from users than anything that they try to create. It’s a fair commentary on the public’s glamorizing and commodification of violence, but also on the level of impersonality that the shield of social media creates where it becomes more fashionable to wish for someone’s misfortune than to fight for their rehabilitation. To be clear, “The Naughty List” muddles these messages, but the episode at least engages in these conversations.

The social media artifice present in the episode’s cold open, especially during the opening title sequence, is a solid structural device for a story of this nature. Max Winkler is a competent director, but “The Naughty List” would have benefitted from finding a way to maintain this aesthetic for the entire runtime. This wouldn’t have been an impossible task, especially for an episode that’s under 40 minutes long, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that’s not possible in the standard American Horror Story series. Now there are more platforms like Instagram and TikTok that can be used to string together a narrative. 

It’s appreciated whenever “The Naughty List” leans into this direction, but in some ways, this only makes it more frustrating that the episode doesn’t work harder to commit to the stylistic premise and instead it just delivers a standard episode of a horror anthology. This could have been something that’s a little higher-minded and can rise above its subject matter through the way it’s presented. Instead, “The Naughty List” becomes the type of creation that’s quickly found in the bargain bins and not the holiday hit that’s impossible to find.

American Horror Stories’ “The Naughty List” unfortunately does not join the ranks of definitive Killer Santa classics. There are some fun ideas in play here and some of the best orchestrated deaths from the series so far, but it’s still an unpleasant slog that feels repetitive at only 37 minutes long. It’s unfortunate that American Horror Stories squanders such an appealing horror touchstone with “The Naughty List,” yet at least when the episode works it really works. It’s fascinating to see American Horror Stories face the same problems that American Horror Story encounters with its long-form storytelling. Each episode of American Horror Stories has brief moments where they shine brightly, yet there are still many kinks in this cluster of Christmas lights that need to get straightened out.


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