The American Horror Story episodic anthology spin-off starts with classic imagery that fits like a latex glove, but struggles for fresh air.
“People love to be scared…”
Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story marked a radical turning point not just for mainstream horror programming on television, but it’s also largely responsible for the massive resurgence of anthology storytelling that’s taken over the medium. American Horror Story started as a bold and exciting new genre experiment, but now that the series is close to its tenth anniversary with at least three more seasons on the way, it’s progressively turned into a parody of itself and the genre. It’s practically become a foregone conclusion that any American Horror Story season will begin with a compelling angle and tease some creative scares, yet steadily run out of steam around the season’s half-way point. American Horror Story is still one of the greatest guilty pleasures and its passion for horror is never in question, but the development of new spinoff series American Horror Stories has so much potential because it seems to directly amend American Horror Story’s biggest problem: its ability to sustain a season-long story.
Immediately, American Horror Stories feels like the perfect solution to rise above the season-long stories of its predecessor. There’s far more freedom in the episodic format and it’s why this approach has helped turn so many one-shot stories from Tales From the Crypt, The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, and more, into classics that still come up in modern horror conversations. American Horror Stories has the proper building blocks to construct something truly great here, but its two-part premiere, “Rubber(wo)Man,” gets too lost in familiar territory. One of the most popular pieces of recurring imagery from American Horror Story is the Rubber Man from “Murder House,” which makes it an appropriate anchor for these episodes.
The Rubber Man remains a visceral, aggressive symbol, but before the episode even begins it already feels slightly played out since American Horror Story has returned to it in AHS: Apocalypse. A lot of time during the first episode is spent on vanity shots of the “Murder House’s” interiors, as if the audience can’t contain their excitement over this reveal. Vintage music cues from American Horror Story’s first season that were associated with the Rubber Man suit, like “Twisted Nerve” and “Tonight You Belong To Me,” also return in creepy contexts that hope to evoke nostalgia towards American Horror Story’s glory days.
The majority of the characters that inhabit Ryan Murphy properties are well-versed in shame, which makes it a suitable emotion to base “Rubber(wo)Man” around. The episode engages in an interesting debate over the differences between shame and fear, where both can be inhibitors in life that prevent an individual from expressing their true self. Shame is present in each member of the new family that moves into the “Murder House,” but it’s the driving force behind the anxiety that Scarlett (Sierra McCormick) experiences on a regular basis. Scarlett has intense masochist ideations where she inexorably mixes together sex and violence where shame and humiliation become more important than romance. She succumbs to teenage lesbian psychosexual masturbation murder fantasies, which feel like trademark Ryan Murphy material, for both better and for worse.
Scarlett’s parents, Michael and Troy (Matt Bomer and Gavin Creel), do their best to keep their daughter’s potentially dangerous impulses under control, but “Rubber(wo)Man” argues that Scarlett’s violent forms of expression may be what’s best for her. These episodes tease whether Scarlett is naturally set to become the next Tate Langdon or if the Rubber Man suit seeks her out because of these dark compulsions, only to then amplify them through the freedom of a faceless costume.
The first part of “Rubber(wo)Man” embraces the slumber party trope and is able to rack up a considerable body count through brutal means. There’s a fairly contrived reason for why Scarlett needs to put on the Rubber Man suit, but American Horror Stories often operates with a haunted magical realism towards certain elements. The premiere takes a slightly unconventional direction when it dashes away a happy ending for a considerably bloodier alternative. It’s a cryptic conclusion, but one that also fuels the second half of this story where Scarlett’s condition only worsens as she becomes in touch with herself.
“Rubber(wo)Man” is really just a layered abuse fantasy, which is able to fully flesh itself out during the second part of this premiere. Scarlett befriends one of the ghosts (Kaia Gerber) that’s stuck in the “Murder House,” who forces her to make some difficult decisions about her future. This second episode is marginally more compelling than the first entry and it gives a lot more for Bomer and Creel to do, which helps. However, this second episode is also much more tongue-in-cheek as it turns ghostly growing pains into relationship therapy and moves at a much faster and violent pace that’s consistent with American Horror Story. At one point, Scarlett’s parents–now both ghosts–try to comfort her with the knowledge that they’re “just trying to protect you from what we’re going through,” as if joining the afterlife is a night of underage drinking and adolescent rebellion.
American Horror Stories’ focus on the ghosts in the second episode is the right approach, but Kaia Gerber struggles to rise to the occasion and carry the episode. This is even more apparent when she’s opposite Sierra McCormick, who is magnetic every second that she’s on screen and largely carries the first episode. The ending for “Rubber(wo)Man” also feels unearned and a little too easy. The idea that Scarlett finds herself through the release that she experiences in the Rubber Man suit tracks, but it happens early on and the episodes circle the same idea for much of the second part’s runtime. American Horror Stories tries to slap an empowered happily ever after message on the end of all of this, which doesn’t do “Rubber(wo)Man” many favors. It only makes this experiment feel even more generic in the end. This dark Romeo and Juliet conclusion is nothing new for American Horror Story. “Rubber(wo)Man” is a satisfactory start, but hopefully what’s to come is progressively fearless and has more to offer than the retreading of themes that the series has already figuratively and literally explored to death.
It also may be a bit pedantic, but American Horror Story has cultivated such a strong universe of horrifying mascots that it’s honestly a shame that this anthology series doesn’t utilize the “host” structure where a Cryptkeeper-esque figure helps introduce and conclude each of these tales. Anthology storytelling has certainly evolved past this construct, but it seems like a homerun for a franchise that’s endlessly campy and loves to pay homage to the classics. American Horror Stories could engage in conversations with its past hits through the use of Twisty the Clown, Papa Legba, The Countess, Rubber Man, or any myriad of Murphy’s monstrous minions in these wraparound segments without having to devote entire episodes to these characters, like what’s done with this two-part premiere. This lack of a host isn’t a deterrent, but just feels like a missed opportunity for a show that wants to celebrate a decade of content.
“Rubber(wo)Man” is a flashy debut for American Horror Stories that may please fans of the core series, but it doesn’t do enough to show off the versatility of its concept and to differentiate itself from what’s come before it. A return to these established American Horror Story universes is obviously part of the appeal of this endeavor. However, the luxury of two episodes dropping at once means that it might have been more effective to have one installment that riffs on the hits, while another highlights more of the original, episodic strengths of this new anthology vehicle. This return to the past might have been more effective as the way to end American Horror Stories’ freshman season rather than how to introduce it. Most fans will be excited to begin the season back in American Horror Story’s “Murder House” roots, especially with a double dose of it, but more skeptical viewers will need to wait another week or two to get a proper grasp on what American Horror Stories can accomplish with the universe’s fresh new format.