SPOILER ALERT: This recap article contains details about tonight’s season premiere of American Horror Story: 1984.
American Horror Story: 1984 is nothing if not loyal, at least to the tropes of the title era. From its pulsating synth-music to its Let’s Get Physical fashions and slasher film cliches, AHS84 rides the death train straight back to the Reagan era.
This incarnation of the Ryan Murphy horror anthology begins with a flashback to 1970, when we see the grisly slaughter of a summer camp full of teens, three of whom have just been caught in bed doing what it is people in slasher films get slashed for. The killer, soon named Mr. Jingles for the keys that jangle as he walks, slices off the ears of all his victims – a gruesome detail that will figure into the plot later on.
Jump to 1984 (and, at least so far as the first episode goes, there are no Orwellian cross references here) and an L.A. aerobics class, loaded with pastel leggings, short shorts and feathered hair, is being led by the handsome, head-banded Xavier Plympton (Cody Fern). His class includes pals Montana (Billie Lourd), the type of good-time girl typically marked for an early exit by ’80s horror convention, and Ray (Deron Horton), who, being black, would once have been expected to make a quicker departure than even the good-time girl.
There’s also Chet (Gus Kenworthy), a hunky but failed Olympics hopeful (damned drug tests), and Brooke (Emma Roberts), the innocent new girl in town.
When Xavier suggests that they all take camp counselor jobs up at the newly reopened Camp Redwood, all but Brooke think its a good idea: L.A. has lately been terrorized by the (real life) serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker. Brooke’s initial reluctance vanishes when that very night, Ramirez breaks into her new apartment, robs her of her jewelry and attempts to kill her (a well-placed frying pan to the head puts the kibosh on that).
So the five friends set out for the camp-with-a-past, but won’t arrive until they get a a creepy “turn back” warning from an even creepier gas station attendant and, ignoring his advice, proceed onward, only to mow down a hippie-ish pedestrian who utters his own cryptic warning before passing out.
Upon arriving at the camp – the kids are due the following day – the counselors meet the truth-telling Nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) and athletic director (and porn ‘stache sporting) Trevor (Matthew Morrison, handed the bulk of tonight’s comic moments with references to his character’s smarmy accomplishments – like being seen briefly in the Three’s Company opening, and being cut from a Jane Fonda exercise video because his biggest, swinging attribute threatened to draw attention from the star).
Then there’s camp owner Margaret (Leslie Grossman), an ear-less survivor of the long-ago slaughter who credits Jesus for her survival (and won’t let any of the sexually rambunctious and chemically adventurous counselors forget it).
By now, the ’80s slasher tropes are coming fast and bloody. There’s an escape at the local insane asylum (that would be Mr. Jingles), the suddenly ear-less injured pedestrian ends up hanging like a slab of meat on hook, Mr. Jingles terrorizes sweet Brook, as does the Night Stalker (Zach Villa).
Two killers aren’t enough to keep Brooke from wandering outside in the middle of the night to answer the payphone, the sort of no-sense decision that made the classic slasher films such enjoyable absurdity.
And enjoyable absurdity pretty much describes this first chapter of AHS84, an episode that neatly sets up the ’80s genre conventions even if it doesn’t do much beyond mimic them. Whatever twists, spins and eccentricities Murphy has in store for his unhappy campers wasn’t much in evidence tonight, but summer’s just beginning. Who knows what horrors could happen before Labor Day?
AHS: 1984 airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on FX.