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Thursday, August 18, 2022

“American Horror Stories” Review – ‘Bloody Mary’ Gets Lost In Its Own Reflection

‘American Horror Stories’ offers its unique take on a classic trope, but thin characters and predictable plotting result in a shattered episode.

“You light a candle in a room and then you say her name three times…”

There’s a natural shorthand that exists with creepy characters like Bloody Mary that have become omnipresent in pop culture. Not only are most American Horror Story audiences aware of Bloody Mary’s urban legend, but there’s been a demand to see her worked into the series for some time now. The twisted “monkey’s paw” logic that accompanies Bloody Mary and similar specters is ripe material for the horror genre to explore and low-rent Blumhouse material like Wish Upon or Truth or Dare (or Shudder’s Kandisha) do exactly that. American Horror Stories finally finds a suitable story to explore this staple, but “Bloody Mary” is arguably the weakest application of this premise. It’s an episode that’s derivative of all of these past films, but it’s at least high enough in camp that what “Bloody Mary” reflects back isn’t completely empty. 

A consistent highlight in American Horror Stories is how the anthology series turns to some of Ryan Murphy’s most reliable performers for memorable one-off roles. By far the best element of “Bloody Mary” is the casting of Dominique Jackson (Elektra Abundance in Pose) as the titular supernatural entity. Jackson is fantastic here and it’s a shame that this performance couldn’t get a larger spotlight as a recurring character in American Horror Story proper. Jackson unquestionably makes Bloody Mary her own, but the episode also reframes the character as a gruesome fairy godmother. Bloody Mary’s origin having ties to the slave trade feels a little gratuitous, but American Horror Stories deserves some credit for its original design and interpretation of the character. That being said, if so many changes need to be made to Bloody Mary then why not just create an original idea a la Candyman?

Honestly, what “Bloody Mary” feels the most reminiscent of is the CW’s young-adult horror anthology, Two-Sentence Horror Stories. This episode could basically air as an installment of the CW series without needing to make any changes. However, what qualifies as an above-average Two-Sentence Horror Stories amounts to a lazy American Horror Stories. Written by Angela L. Harvey and directed by SJ Main Munoz, both of which are new voices in the American Horror Story universe, “Bloody Mary” feels too restricted by the procedural nature of their past work.

“Bloody Mary” becomes one giant demonic blackmail session that gets hopelessly out of hand. The terms to which Bloody Mary holds sisters Elise (Raven Scott), Bianca (Quvenzhané Wallis, whose Oscar-nominated caliber of talent is wasted in this episode), and the rest of their friends to are truly vile. The slippery slope that they’re forced down continues for the entire episode and all of this becomes an extended exercise in darkness that’s not a whole lot of fun to watch. The episode’s opening premise is built upon a weak foundation that’s pretty telegraphed for the remainder of the entry. It’s a hopeless situation that only gets worse. 

The thin characterization in “Bloody Mary” is problematic, but the pacing is also a struggle. A quarter of the episode is spent on the lackluster cold open, which could accomplish the same thing in half the time and give the rest of the episode more room to play around. Major deaths are also breezed over, covered through flashbacks, or happen entirely offscreen (although this is partly to obscure the killer’s true identity). The padded episode never finds a natural rhythm and events feel like they’re either playing catch up or biding their time.

Some of the clumsiest moments in “Bloody Mary” involve a convenient lesson plan on reflection and refraction in an episode where the supernatural threat is directly related to mirrors. The characters earnestly ask questions like, “Wait, so mirrors can be gateways to other worlds?” without a shred of irony. This “organic” lesson plan doesn’t exactly have the same tact as the early chemistry lessons in Breaking Bad, but they’re fun in a ham-fisted way. What’s harder to accept are the many forced scenarios where characters suddenly face giant mirrors and are vulnerable to Blood Mary’s attacks.

There are a lot of half-baked ideas in “Bloody Mary,” but there’s the kernel of something compelling when it comes to how societal and class hierarchy have conditioned the episode’s main characters to be less fortunate. This makes them the most likely to call upon Bloody Mary for help in the first place, which signs their early death sentences and further perpetuates this cycle. “Bloody Mary” fails to do enough with this idea and it wouldn’t have been hard to show students of other levels of privilege addressing the Bloody Mary rumors, whether it’s to shoot down the idea or dig into it deeper. There’s room in “Bloody Mary” for the episode to gain depth and actually say something significant, but it’s more content to explore the destructive domino effect of deaths that are triggered in the episode’s cold open.

The final act of “Bloody Mary” finally pushes its premise into unexpected territory as Elise and Bianca turn on one another and betrayals begin to stack on top of each other. Elise and Bianca are both tempted with the prospect of easy futures, but this resolution feels disingenuous on some level and that it’s more about ending the episode with a surprising twist than believable character development. Bloody Mary offers these sisters stress-free lives, but it hardly seems like either would choose this path if it means that it comes at their sibling’s expense.  What’s the point of a good education and easier existence if there’s no one to share it with?

“Bloody Mary” is likely not the celebration of this supernatural folkloric figure that American Horror Story fans were hoping for, but the few elements that work–Jackson’s performance, Bloody Mary’s design, and the specifics of the ending–are enough to make the episode worthwhile and not completely bereft of original ideas. “Bloody Mary” does find occasional moments of tension, particularly in the cheerleading rehearsal scene, where it’s unclear whether these characters will give into Bloody Mary’s ultimatum or resist. However, they’re too few and far between. Despite these concessions and the episode’s shoddy execution, “Bloody Mary” is heightened enough that it’s at least an entertaining misfire and the right type of popcorn B-movie cinema that can still be enjoyed even if it doesn’t bring anything new to the genre.

The post “American Horror Stories” Review – ‘Bloody Mary’ Gets Lost In Its Own Reflection appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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