"American Horror Story" (FX) is a big ol' brooding, baffling, ridiculous and occasionally compelling mess of a show. Never big fans of narrative convention, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have rejected the essential rule of horror — the unseen is more terrifying than the revealed — in favor of the same "more is more" theology that fuels their equally defiant "Glee." As a result, early episodes seem less concerned with telling a scary story than pelting the viewer with story lines, vignettes, disturbing imagery, psycho-sexual titillation and the odd moment of high camp.
The pilot starts off eerily enough, when, in 1978, twin boys break into an abandoned L.A. mansion. Strangely unmoved by a girl in a yellow dress standing in the overgrown yard who tells them they will die in there, the two proceed to trash the place, only to meet their foretold ends in the very creepy basement.
Here in the present, the house belongs to the Harmons, a family attempting to flee the horrors of their past by moving from Boston to Los Angeles. Vivien ("Friday Night Lights'" Connie Britton) was just recovering from a stillbirth when she discovered her husband, psychiatrist/college instructor Ben (Dylan McDermott), having sex with one of his students. With the blessing of their surly teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), they buy the strangely affordable, newly restored Victorian Gothic jewel of a house even after the Realtor discloses the fact that murder has been committed there. No, not those twin boys, but the previous owners, a gay couple recently found dead by murder-suicide. So recently, in fact, that they left their latex catsuit in the attic.
The ghosties, ghoulies and long-legged beasties assemble with nerve-jangling rapidity. In addition to the thing skittering around in the basement, there's intrusive neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange, in glorious blood-and-moonlight-on-magnolias mode) and her daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome and is the now-adult prophetic girl in the yellow dress. Moira, the housekeeper, comes in two flavors: a middle-aged Frances Conroy when Vivien sees her, and a sexy young Alexandra Breckenridge for Ben. Tate (Evan Peters), a teen with murderous thoughts, arrives as Ben's patient and quickly makes himself at home, while Larry (Denis O'Hare), another previous owner, offers Ben a warning.
There are also nightmares of a less supernatural sort — the kids at Violet's school are crazy hateful, Vivien has phobia issues and Ben is torn between anger and guilt — because that's the point of monsters. They personify what we fear in ourselves. In these days of lovelorn vampires and hunky werewolves, it's gratifying to see ghosts being treated with the respect they deserve.
It's too bad that Murphy and Falchuk feel that they have to stab us in the face with the metaphor, and everything else for that matter. From the cheesy porn come-hithers of Moira to the seemingly endless succession of murders committed in the house, "American Horror Story" is frantic in a way that diffuses rather than intensifies the goose-bump factor.
It's structured, in fact, a bit like "Glee" — exposition created to showcase the big numbers, in this case, the revelation of some new manifestation of evil and/or depravity. Not surprisingly, the two shows share a similar problem — too many ideas and not enough storytelling. But horror is the most delicate and difficult genre, requiring an exquisite balance of anticipation and action. Stomp down those basement stairs too loudly or too often and horror collapses into camp, which "American Horror Story" unfortunately does upon more than one occasion.
Even so, it's difficult to look away. McDermott is lost, but Britton miraculously manages to shoulder the weight of even the most outrageous moments, including a sex scene involving that latex catsuit, which is horrifying mainly because the thing has been sitting in the attic without benefit of dry cleaning. Conroy is creepy and fascinating, O'Hare brilliant as always, and Lange, well, Lange is simply marvelous — she doesn't just chew the scenery, she spits it into her hand and uses it to make hallucinogenic tea.
It's Britton and Lange, along with the thing in the basement, that keep you wondering what will happen next, and hoping it will be a lot less hectic and anything goes than the first three episodes. Because even with all the zombies and the vampires, there's always room for a good "American Horror Story."