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Thursday, September 30, 2021

[Review] “American Horror Story: Death Valley” Begins With a Probing Look into Alien Archetypes

Part 2 of ‘AHS: Double Feature’ turns to grisly sci-fi staples for a divided premiere that’s pregnant with promise and upcoming horror highs.

“Now we have a new question: Why? Why is it here?”

Through the never-ending rolodex of horror sub-genres that have been explored in American Horror Story, aliens is one topic that’s been surprisingly underused. Besides the presence of extraterrestrials as more of an afterthought at the end of AHS: Asylum, the versatile material has been ignored in favor of more terrestrial terrors. This leaves “Death Valley, Part 2 of American Horror Story’s split Double Feature structure, a galaxy’s worth of room to experiment and get creative. The result is an introductory episode that effectively pulls the audience in with its tractor beam and should keep them entertained enough to stick around for what’s next.

Take Me To Your Leader” begins on a very strong note and the lengthy span of time that’s spent in 1954 New Mexico establishes a high point that the rest of the episode fails to reach. The stylized use of black-and-white as well as more classical cinematography that’s reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi/horror hybrids instantly makes “Death Valley” pop. This embracing of past customs doesn’t always strengthen its subject matter, but audiences will actually miss the episode’s monochrome look once it shifts over to color. American Horror Story newcomer, Neal McDonough, does a lot of the heavy lifting in this premiere as President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower (in a performance that’s markedly more restrained than Clive Owen’s current Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story). He provides the helpful stability that’s often necessary to rein in all of the chaotic elements in a season of American Horror Story. 

On that note, the alien autopsy scene is some of the best stuff that American Horror Story has done in a while. It may just pull from some of the most effective moments out of Alien and the anime, Elfen Lied, but they’re still well-executed. There’s a palpable sense of danger and carnage that’s present from the opening minutes of “Death Valley,” which is a big change of pace from when a season takes its time to let its respective dangers sneak up on the audience. “Death Valley” from AHS: Double Feature is more about throwing all of the elements at the audience and then letting them put the puzzle together without the instructions, much like how extraterrestrials would approach Earth and its population.

The plot of the “Death Valley” narrative thickens in an encouraging manner once it brings in Lily Rabe as a shell-shocked version of Amelia Earhart, whose disappearance is cleared up by American Horror Story by attributing it to an alien abduction. This story holds the most potential out of anything from “Death Valley” and unexplained details like the crop circle-esque scars across Earhart’s body are great examples of visual storytelling. Earhart getting roped into this alien story is deliciously Ryan Murphy in all of the ways that work, but unfortunately “Take Me To Your Leader” then shifts in the opposite direction and indulges in all of the Ryan Murphy impulses that falter once the episode shifts over to its privileged, ultra-sexed Princeton kids. In the blink of an eye, it trades quirky horror riffs on classic Americana for sex appeal and influencer culture. This war of sensibilities has always been at play in American Horror Story, but it’s an especially awkward divide in the premiere to this story.

It’s hard not to get whiplash when the second half of “Take Me To Your Leader” catches up to the present and introduces the latest roster of cookie cutter Ryan Murphy caricatures. Each of these characters receive a stylistic dossier introduction that bombards the audience with backstory details so the characters can spend more time giving detailed accounts of their sex lives and kinks. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sexual characters, or even individuals who define themselves through such a lens. It just feels so pat for Ryan Murphy at this point and it’s harder to empathize with a cast of characters like this when they feel more like expendable parodies. 

Kaia Gerber, who’s quickly become one of Murphy’s favorite new repertory players, struggles to sell her casting as Kendall Carr, the “brainy” member of the group. This depiction of intelligence through sexual osmosis is problematic, yet Kendall is able to feel empowered by the experience and entitled to lead the charge with her friends as a result. It’s a curious decision that sticks out, but it at least feels consistent with certain slasher stereotypes. “Take Me To Your Leader” could have attempted an interesting subversion of expectations by killing off Kendall and her friends by the end of the episode, but it seems like they’re the focus of “Death Valley.” These teen characters, as frustrating as they may be, also routinely make smart decisions throughout “Take Me To Your Leader.” They immediately opt out of their camping trip when they get the first whiff of danger.

Whenever American Horror Story pounces on a different sub-genre of horror they tend to feature as much of that topic as possible and throw every appropriate idea–and even some that aren’t appropriate–at the audience and see what sticks. “Take Me Your Leader” hits the ground running with the number of popular alien abduction tropes that it checks off the list, but it still manages to push these ideas to a place that’s new and disturbing. For instance, “Death Valley” provides its take on the mass cattle mutilation trope, but it cleanly bisects its animals in half and creates a mystery out of the massacre. Tentacles are also prevalent during abduction scenes in another effort to subvert the norm. It even feels like “Death Valley” is interested in engaging in some larger commentary on how the masses of society are all slaves to technology. I’m sure that this idea won’t eventually shift from subtext to text once American Horror Story begins to inevitably riff on elements out of The Day the Earth Stood Still. 

It’s easier to look past any misgivings in the latter half of “Take Me To Your Leader” since the episode moves along so quickly and that these characters are already pregnant with some kind of alien offspring by the time that the credits roll. A typical season of American Horror Story would take three or four episodes to reach this point. Playing out a season’s story in fast-forward isn’t always a recipe for success, but it helps power along this premiere. It should also be interesting to see how these episodes will link together their Presidential 1954 material with the present timeline. There’s an opportunity to get more explicit on this front or restrain it to more of an implied horror from the past that’s carried over and become generational. I wouldn’t be surprised if each of “Death Valley’s” four episodes utilize this bifurcated structure to their storytelling.

American Horror Story has reached a point where it’s impossible to predict the trajectory or level of quality that will be present by the end of any given season. In this sense it may sound naïve to say that “Take Me To Your Leader” is a successful start to AHS: Double Feature’s “Death Valley” narrative that allows the story to take some promising turns with its remaining episodes. With only six episodes, AHS: Double Feature’s “Red Tide” still found ways to pad its story and go off the rails in certain regards. I previously questioned why this season’s split into six and four entries rather than a cleaner five and five, but “Death Valley” may prove that four-episode stories are the perfect sweet spot for American Horror Story. 

Dwight Eisenhower has questions over why the aliens are here, but hopefully by the end of “Death Valley” the audience won’t be left wondering the same thing about AHS: Double Feature. 

American Horror Story Death Valley Alien Doppleganger Attack



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3685208/review-american-horror-story-death-valley-begins-probing-look-alien-archetypes/

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