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Thursday, August 5, 2021

[Review] “American Horror Stories”: ‘BA’AL’ Explores the Fears of Early Parenthood With Predictable Episode

“All I ever wanted to do was to be a mom, and I suck at it.”

One of the more disturbing sub-genres to invade horror is the uncomfortable territory of “pregnancy horror.” There are few things more horrifying than a woman at the height of pregnancy–and vulnerability–becoming the target of a vicious attack. There are many movies that expertly dissect this subject matter, whether they’re classics like Rosemary’s Baby, Inside, The Brood, or even more recent horror films like False Positive, Anything for Jackson, or Son. Accordingly, pregnancy horror is now well-trodden territory where the genre has said most of what it can on the subject, yet it also feels like prime territory for Ryan Murphy’s juvenile anthology series to tackle for an episode. ”BA’AL” does feel like a modern exploration of many of the themes and fears that those other movies explore, but unfortunately there’s not enough else going on in the episode to justify this escape into demonic pregnancy pacts. 

Many of the episodes of American Horror Stories have turned to heavy-hitters from American Horror Story proper as headliners, but the biggest example of this yet is “BA’AL’s” use of Billie Lourd as determined, but frayed, mother-to-be Liv. Liv endlessly romanticizes pregnancy over adoption and there are periodic references to genetics and the inheritance of certain benefits–whether they’re physical qualities or material wealth–that establish just how important the act of birth is to Lourd’s Liv. It’s just baked into what she’s grown to value. Opposite Liv is her struggling actor husband Matt (Ronen Rubenstein), who plays his role well here, but this feels like a fairly paint-by-numbers romance. This has been a weakness in all of the episodes of American Horror Stories so far. None of these relationships have felt genuine, but there’s at least more empathy present between Liv and Matt. They care about each other even if their situation is far from extraordinary. 

There are a lot of different angles to tell a story of this nature, but “BA’AL” turns to a fertility totem, which is one of the more creative ways to go about this. It’s definitely more appealing and unique than if Liv and Matt were to turn to a strange new fertility clinic or adopt some demon spawn. The totem does get pushed on Liv in a very clunky way, but the episode is at least able to launch right into the story. “BA’AL” manages to come up with an excuse, in retrospect, that kind of justifies the awkward nature of some of the episode’s awkward plot progression when it comes to the supporting characters. This doesn’t redeem the episode, but it’s at least one element that works in favor of “BA’AL’s” clumsy nature. 

“BA’AL” really wastes no time with its pacing and not long after Liv acquires the fertility totem the episode flashes forward completely past the pregnancy to a point where Liv and Matt’s child is six-months-old. There are so many disturbing pregnancy ideas and pieces of imagery that are well-trodden at this point that it’s appreciated that “BA’AL” skips completely past all of this. The audience should naturally suspect that something will be off with this infant, but they haven’t been conditioned through a number of tell-tale pregnancy problems or worrisome nightmares that immediately doom the baby. Despite how it’s clear that Liv’s baby will turn into her family’s undoing, there’s decent tension through this first act until “BA’AL” decides when to truly show its hand.

Liv is miserable when she can’t get pregnant, but her problems only become more intense after she gets what she wants. Liv feels inadequate as a parent, that she has all of the wrong instincts, and at her most vulnerable moments feels that she’s not even Aaron’s mother. These negative feelings aren’t uncommon during pregnancy, but of course they all hit a little harder here after the circumstances surrounding Liv’s pregnancy and Aaron’s birth. In this sense, “BA’AL” goes through the motions and a large part of this episode does feel like it’s just checking off boxes for this type of horror story.

So much of this episode is just Liv debating with herself over whether the stresses of early parenthood are causing her to hallucinate, or if there’s actually something sinister going on here. This is typically the angle that these pregnancy horror films take, so this structure does feel derivative of many superior movies, but it’s an angle that allows “BA’AL” to quickly move deeper into its story. Lourd is always a delight, but she’s left to be so worn out and ragged through most of the episode that it’s hard to take joy out of it. However, the moments where she actually has her guard down and is having fun with her baby are really pleasant and bring out a side of Lourd that usually isn’t seen, especially in Ryan Murphy productions.

There are still stylistic touches in “BA’AL” that are effective. The devil and baby monitor scares are reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, but they still connect. The same is true for the warping of a typical children’s lullaby into nightmare music or the use of baby monitor static as the ambient sound during tense scenes. The changing nature of the fertility totem is also an effective, albeit simple, scare. The episode briefly turns to a round of Ouija, which isn’t handled nearly as well. It’s a little too convenient that a Ouija board-in-box is just within arm’s reach, but that also speaks to the episode’s big twist.

There’s a strange tendency for Satanic pregnancy stories to come down to massive conspiracies where everyone has been plotting against the main character. “BA’AL” decides to play this card too, but its rationale is questionable. It’s unquestionably an easy way to tell this story and the special effects spin on it all brings something new forward, but it’s not enough. All of Matt’s college friends use their film industry skills to gaslight Liv and jumpstart their careers. Sure, they get a massive payout, but this is sufficiently evil and not something that friends would just casually jump into at the expense of someone who is completely innocent through all of this. That being said, it does make it that much easier to watch them all get disemboweled by a demon.

At the end of the day, “BA’AL” just feels like Ryan Murphy and company wanting to do their best Rosemary’s Baby impression for a modern audience. “BA’AL” technically achieves this, but through the bare minimum and it’s unlikely that this American Horror Stories episode will be anyone’s favorite example of pregnancy horror. Not everything in “BA’AL” is a wash, and Billie Lourd’s casting as the lead certainly helps. There are some exciting visuals and compelling ideas that the episode flirts with, but they all get diminished by the pedestrian nature of everything else in the episode. The predictable nature of “BA’AL” sands off its edges and leaves behind a malformed figure rather than the fierce totem that the episode strives to be. 



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3676933/review-american-horror-stories-baal-plants-seed-pregnancy-horror-leaves-audiences-expecting/

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