[Review] “American Horror Stories” Heads to the “Drive In” for an Encouraging Third Episode

The cost of art and the relationship between cinema and spectator come under scrutiny in this bloody, mindful American Horror Stories entry.

“Fear?”
“Why do you think horror films were invented?”

There are no shortage of horror films that take place within movie theaters, but it’s considerably rarer for the carnage to be set at a drive-in (although it’s not unheard of and Chillerama is a guilty pleasure anthology movie that’s worth a watch). Immediately, this unique setting gives “Drive In” more bite, which only becomes stronger when it’s combined together with the premise of a banned movie that’s become an urban legend due to its allegedly “cursed” status. What’s distinctive about American Horror Stories“Drive In” is how this episode ties together drive-ins, banned movies, and the hormonal teenage experience with all of these topics ultimately coming down to control, forced expectations, and puritanical societal values. It’s not the horror home run that American Horror Stories needs to prove itself, but it’s an encouraging direction for the anthology series.

Unruly sexuality and horned up teenagers are practically a given when it comes to Ryan Murphy’s exaggerated horror universe, but hormones really drive this story. It’s the kind of narrative where characters moan, “I’m going to die a virgin,” but are more concerned about the latter part of the sentence. “Drive In” presents frequent examples of young love that light a fire under its characters, but they also evoke the simultaneous feeling of comfort and vulnerability that a horror movie prompts in its audience. At times this message could be better communicated, but “Drive In” has a lot to say on the psychology of a movie audience and cinema’s ability to transform its environment, whether it’s figuratively or literally–like it is in this case where a movie can physically trigger a transformation in its audience. 

The subtext in “Drive In” bleeds through when the episode’s characters can’t help but be drawn to the images on the movie screen, even when they’re engaged in intimate sexual acts. The two blur together into one experience and these spectators are as desperate to take in the movie–even if it’s just through their peripheral vision–as they are to cover new sexual bases in their relationships. Hands of lovers passionately smear away steam on the inside of a car’s windshield while the frantic hands of the infected smudge blood across the outside of it. It’s during these layered moments where  “Drive In” is at its strongest.

The decent premise in “Drive In” is occasionally at war with the puerile, one-note characters that are caught up in this mess. Rhenzy Feliz and Madison Bailey headline the episode, but neither of them are given much to work with through these caricatures. Unsurprisingly, the strongest performances in “Drive In” come from the veterans that the episode enlists, like Adrienne Barbeau or John Carroll Lynch, who portrays Larry Bitterman, a disgruntled director. Bitterman’s magnum opus, “Rabbit Rabbit,” is a legendary cursed film that has a reputation for provoking its audience to go all homicidal on each other the one and only time it was screened. 

The largely juvenile cast of characters in this American Horror Stories episode argue that the only reason that horror films exist is because fear is a helpful motivator in sealing the deal on a date. It’s a flawed argument, and one that’s in direct opposition to how Larry Bitterman views his craft. However, it’s enough to facilitate a reason for everyone to get together at the drive-in showing of “Rabbit Rabbit.” “Rabbit Rabbit” may be a reference to famed banned UK horror movie, The Bunny Game, but “Drive In” forges its own path for this piece of celluloid carnage. Curiously, the horror sub-genre that applies a semi-meta take to cursed films that cause their audience to erupt in rage has become surprisingly common. There’s nothing in “Drive In” that isn’t also explored in similar films, like Antrum, but it’s still far from an empty endeavor.

The second half of “Drive In” considerably picks up the pace, once “Rabbit Rabbit” begins and it starts to work its magic over the audience. The murders come fast and furiously, which at times doesn’t feel that different from any stereotypical zombie attack where a select few are chased by hordes of creatures. During these moments of generic bloodshed, it’s the episode’s drive-in setting that inspires the most creativity in the episode. “Drive In” juxtaposes the bright drive-in pre-roll iconography with dark, violent slashings. A cacophony of car horns drown out death rattles. A brief, yet effective sequence chronicles the struggle to make a getaway in a drive-in parking lot that’s crowded with cars. Elsewhere, there’s a morbidly unconventional use of classical film editing equipment to julienne an editor’s fingers, which amounts to the episode’s strongest scene.

Sobering shots of the drive-in theater’s carnage during the light of the day are also appreciated and contrast well with the previous chaos. It’s a perspective from this kind of horror that’s not always highlighted. However, it works in the episode’s favor that the arrival of dawn doesn’t cue the credits and that there’s still an act left to negotiate this terror in what’s literally the harsh light of day. The episode’s director, Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame, tries his best to accentuate the neon drive-in setting. These stylistic flairs improve as the episode goes on and some of the most creative aspects in “Drive In” involve the blurred optics that are used during Bitterman’s flashbacks, as if the footage is playing through an old film projector. 

The script for “Drive In” struggles in certain areas where Sanchez’s direction doesn’t. Manny Coto, who’s responsible for over half of this season’s American Horror Stories scripts, officially entered the American Horror Story family in AHS: Apocalypse. Coto’s writing might be best recognized from his work on Star Trek: Enterprise and 24, but he comes from extensive anthology experience, having penned scripts for Tales From the Crypt, Monsters, The Outer Limits, and more. “Drive In” is an improvement over last week’s two-part premiere, but it’s still flawed. That being said, the successes in “Drive In” are hopefully a stronger measure of this season’s quality since many more Coto scripts are on the way.

Some of the most rewarding material in “Drive In” is reserved for its final minutes when the survivors of the screening confront Bitterman at his most delusional. “Drive In” engages in another conversation about the cost of art and what constitutes success for a horror film. Bitterman stays true to his name and the episode frames him as if his pursuit is lunacy, but a greater focus on this character and how the treatment of “Rabbit Rabbit” has impacted the rest of the career would only enrich “Drive In’s” message. Bitterman’s trial and error approach to subliminal messages is just as compelling subject matter for an episode to focus on as the aftermath of what said subliminal messages trigger. “Drive In” thankfully provides a glimpse of the original “Rabbit Rabbit” massacre, but this also feels like the kind of scene that could be another centerpiece of the episode.

Much like the traditional drive-in experience, American Horror Stories“Drive In” is a mixed bag, but one that still entertains and tries to say something poignant about the state of horror and those that consume it. It’s helpful to see American Horror Stories spread its wings a little more and cover new territory, albeit with stories that still exhibit a reverence towards the horror genre and why its past is just as important as its future. 

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