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Friday, July 22, 2022

“American Horror Stories” Review – Season 2 Welcomes Viewers to the “Dollhouse” In a Creepy Character Study

Season two of “American Horror Stories” kicks off with a perturbing pageant that pulls the strings on some porcelain prisoners.

“What is a doll, really? Nothing more than mankind’s attempt to finish what the Almighty began…”

Creepy killer dolls are a perennial horror classic, but there’s a rarer and more disturbing sub-genre where people get turned into living dolls through complicated levels of brainwashing and mental manipulation. Grim horror movies like Dead Silence, House of Wax, The Boy, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes have explored this concept in contrasting ways, but it’s eluded the American Horror Story universe until now. These living doll horror stories can be unique forms of punishment, prison, or perpetual arrested development, but American Horror Stories’ “Dollhouse” instead uses its dolls as a symbol of flawlessness. “Dollhouse” explores a fulfilling sub-genre of horror that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to unnerving visuals, but there’s also an effective character study and meditation on power, codependency, and the impossible pursuit for perfection that makes sure that this American Horror Stories episode doesn’t just play house.

“Dollhouse” definitely has plenty of moments where the “dolls” are haunting human ciphers, but there are also loving work sequences that detail the construction of dolls that highlight the elegance of this art. “Dollhouse” presents the broken down anatomy of a human, in doll form, as a sterile way of celebrating the human body. It’s appreciated that the episode doesn’t just focus on the unsettling iconography that dolls represent, but it instead unpacks the history of dolls and what their purpose has been throughout different time periods and societies. Mankind has evolved in countless ways, but their fascination with dolls as some form of comfort appears to be innately wired into biology. 

This all plays out quite naturally in “Dollhouse” and it’s helpful context for everything that follows. If dolls are a defense mechanism that people have leaned on as far back as 1300 B.C. then what chance do individuals like Van Wirt (Denis O’Hare) have to resist this temptation? Van Wirt uses his position of power to play God to some extent, but his desire to create this perfect living doll is all in the pursuit to find his son, Otis (Houston Jax Towe), the perfect maternal figure. In some ways, the initial premise is akin to Takashi Miike’s Audition…but with dolls. It then descends into a nightmarish pageant where it feels like Martha Stewart got to sub in for Jigsaw. Denis O’Hare is always reliable and he does a lot of the heavy lifting in “Dollhouse” as he taps into different facets of Van Wirt’s obsessive perfectionism as he holds this crude contest. 

Kristine Froseth as Coby is a serviceable lead, but she’s not the standout that some of the other emerging guest stars from the first batch of American Horror Stories episodes were. The presence of five dolls in Van Wirt’s twisted competition also feels like overkill and perhaps a smaller number of girls would have helped any of them make more of an impression.  A lot of “Dollhouse” leans into Coby’s relationship with Otis. It’s a dynamic that doesn’t fail and feels more natural than Coby’s heart-to-hearts with the rest of her inmates, but it’s still not the compelling emotional through-line that “Dollhouse” thinks that it is.

“Dollhouse” is undeniably a beautiful episode to look at and its art direction, set dressing, and cinematography are all some of the most rewarding aspects of the episode. This isn’t quite a case where there’s no substance behind the style, but the visual aesthetics outdo the character work. The look of the other “dolls” that Coby is stuck with is so creepy (as is Coby’s own clown doll getup), but it’s a shame that they’re not stuck in these face masks for longer. No performer wants to be behind a mask for an entire episode, but a lot of impact is lost as soon as the hostages remove them.

“Dollhouse” actually has a strong premise, but it goes through the motions and falls flat when it comes to many of the specifics of this story. The scenes between each new pageant competition tread water and none of the other “dolls” make their mark. That being said, what does work is quite effective and there’s still enough to grab onto here, both visually and thematically. Many viewers are likely to overlook some of these concessions because of “Dollhouse’s” surprising finish.

There are enough previous installments that go out on downer endings that Coby’s permanent porcelain servitude wouldn’t be a surprising conclusion. These dollhouse theatrics are what are important, but all that anyone is going to be talking about with this episode is its Deus Ex Robichaux twist. Some may bemoan the unexpected appearance of witches, but Manny Coto actually puts the work into “Dollhouse’s” script and the connections to AHS: Coven make sense.

I was quite critical of how the first season of American Horror Stories spent so much time focused on gratuitous tributes to Murder House rather than forging its own path. The Coven reveal feels justified and this is the right way to connect the American Horror Story dots that’s fun fan service, but not in a way that disrupts the narrative. Otis growing up to become Spalding (who loved dolls, lest we forget) is also a cute nod to the fact that Denis O’Hare played that Coven character. It implies a generational connection that’s a smart use of casting, especially when American Horror Story heavy-hitters are showing up here. 

At one point in “Dollhouse,” Van Wirt tells Otis to “treat your things with respect.” The way in which this episode handles the broader American Horror Story mythology does exactly that. It’s likely still going to be a bumpy ride ahead this season in American Horror Stories, but this is an encouraging premiere that already proves that it’s learned a lot from last year.

The post “American Horror Stories” Review – Season 2 Welcomes Viewers to the “Dollhouse” In a Creepy Character Study appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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