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Thursday, August 12, 2021

[Review] “American Horror Stories” Goes “Feral” in the Woods for the Spinoff’s Best Episode Yet

American Horror Stories turns to the many horrors that lurk in the woods with a strong entry that subverts expectations and takes big swings.

“This is about experiencing nature; getting outside of our comfort zones.”

American Horror Stories has turned to many of horror’s most popular premises for its debut season and so an episode that’s set within the wilderness among the elements feels very appropriate. That being said, nature-set horror has turned into a surprisingly eclectic sub-branch of the genre that can cover Cryptids, deranged hillbillies, a werewolf, or some variety of Blair Witch equivalent. Part of what makes “Feral” such a successful and striking episode is that it bides its time and weighs its options over which wilderness-bound horror trope is in play here. It certainly leans into the Cryptid angle, but it also just as frequently laughs in the face of such an idea; “Feral’s” greatest strength is hanging onto that mystery for as long as possible. The perspective that “Feral” ultimately settles on isn’t an issue, but it plays with the audience’s knowledge of the genre in order to create scares and set pieces that can work with any of these nature horror staples.

It results in the strongest episode of American Horror Stories yet.

“Feral” begins with a very effective cold open that pushes the episode into unexpected territory right from the start. Aaron Tveit and Tiffany Dupont do solid work as Addy and Jay, two grief-stricken parents who are still reeling from their son Jacob’s disappearance from a decade ago. They both give raw, believable performances that speak to the place that they’ve been stuck in for the past ten years. Bob Birch (Blake Shields), a hunter, wedges himself between these two and he makes sure that their painful reminiscing and cyclical arguments never overtake the episode or run on for too long. The turn that occurs with Birch hits hard and is consistent with the rest of how “Feral” develops. The way in which “Feral” shifts the role of ally from Birch over to Ranger Stan (Cody Fern) is also very organic. It’s a development that actually feels earned and isn’t hastily thrown together like many of the relationships from American Horror Stories’ inaugural season.

Cody Fern is seriously chewing the scenery throughout “Feral” like he’s Bigfoot feasting on a camper. He’s committed to quite the accent that’s completely unnecessary, but it’s exactly the type of exaggerated performance that American Horror Stories should be turning to with Ryan Murphy’s “legacy” cast members. It’s been nice to see Billie Lourd, John Carroll Lynch, and Matt Bomer, but Cody Fern really takes advantage of the absurdity of this broad horror anthology and he understands what genre B-stories like this need in order to thrive. It also gives his character a demented Crocodile Dundee quality that may or may not be intentional, but also brings John Jarratt’s Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek to mind. It’s a simple detail that evokes a wave of pre-existing horror connotations that makes Fern’s character simultaneously disarming and intimidating. 

“Feral” moves along at a healthy pace that fluctuates between unspoken tension and disturbing imagery where the episode briefly channels The Green Inferno. It teases the idea of a “Yowie”–Australia’s equivalent to Bigfoot–at the center of this carnage, but it then twists that hypothesis. The viewer never gets a chance to become comfortable with any one idea before “Feral” heads into its grand finale: that the National Parks system is actually a supernatural safeguard to protect America from the myriad of creatures–the “Feral Nation”–that populate these areas. It’s a completely unexpected development, which is oddly refreshing for American Horror Stories. The best thing about this ridiculous turn of events is that it feels like the sort of solution that would come in at the penultimate episode of a season-long wilderness-set season of American Horror Story. “Feral” manages to hit a season’s worth of highlights in this one episode, so such a prolonged endeavor is completely unnecessary. 

“Feral” is an American Horror Stories episode that’s more about the plot and imagery than any metaphorical themes. However, it does feel significant that Jay and Addy’s camping trip begins as an exercise in relaxation and letting go, only for the two of them to spend the majority of the episode deeply stressed and unable to find a calm. “Feral’s” final act briefly gets a little too heavy on exposition, but it moves quickly enough and makes sure that the details covered are at least interesting. The end result is also just heartbreaking and it actually feels like a strange hybrid between Hereditary and Midsommar, yet with a cannibal veneer over it all.

Manny Coto has been responsible for the majority of this season’s scripts, but “Feral” is the only episode that he additionally directs. Accordingly, it feels like this episode is the one that Coto was the most passionate about and it’s why it has such a polished quality when it comes to its look. Some of the best cinematography from the season is present in “Feral” as it showcases sprawling forestry and open skies. There’s also great contrast between the scenes set during the day, and those that are at night, which both present Jay and Addy in differently haunting manners.

“Feral” is exactly what I want out of American Horror Stories. It’s far from a perfect piece of television, and in fact many of the decisions that this episode makes are flawed, but it tunes itself to the right wavelength that American Horror Stories and its predecessor have conditioned its audience to respond towards. “Feral” has empathetic characters, a horror premise that’s far from overdone, and a story that continually takes unexpected turns until it finally agrees upon a truly twisted climax. It’s episodes like this that will make it even harder to return to American Horror Story’s Murder House for next week’s season finale, but hopefully more installments follow in “Feral’s” nature and aren’t afraid to go for broke.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3678050/review-american-horror-stories-goes-feral-woods-spinoffs-best-episode-yet/

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