American Horror Stories Premiere Review – “Rubber(wo)Man” and “Rubber(wo)Man Part 2”

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American Horror Stories premieres, with two episodes, Thursday, July 15 exclusively on FX on Hulu.


American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s decade-running TV franchise, forever bubbling over with scares and snark, is now embracing the episodic anthology game with American Horror Stories, an earnest stab at shorter quick-bite horror and, even possibly, an attempt to solve some of the lingering woes the regular Horror Story seasons have been suffering from for a handful of years now. The end result here, after a two-part premiere — “Rubber(wo)Man” Parts 1 and 2 — is a story that starts strong but then undercuts its initial bite with a second half that feels too silly and sloppy.

Keeping things within the American Horror Story universe, which officially went full shared universe with 2018’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse, “Rubber(wo)Man” brings us back into Season 1’s Murder House (which also was a big part of Apocalypse and a bit player in other seasons) for a new romp through the ghostly halls of the most haunted manor on the West Coast. And while none of main players from the original Murder House tale are back (Evan Peters, Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, etc), the story still makes good use of the unique ghostly physics of the place and the new doomed family moving in to try and capitalize on the dwellings’ diabolical history.

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It’s not known yet whether or not the remaining Stories episodes will be as overtly connected to famous past American Horror Story seasons or if this is just an “introduction to the new format” deal in order to solidly tether it to the franchise right out of the gate, but the notion works. As American Horror Story grows longer in the tooth and more frequently offers diminishing returns, Murder House is still one of the series’ best regarded seasons. So it’s both an easy and efficient idea to kick off this anthology show with a dive back into this lore-filled landscape.

When morose teen Scarlett (The Vast of Night’s Sierra McCormick) and her dads (Gavin Creel and returning AHS player Matt Bomer) move into the Murder House with intentions of flipping it into a spooky Airbnb, we’re submerged in a story about a high schooler getting corrupted by the dark forces of the dwelling (the Rubber Man, in particular). As the haunting unfolds, we discover that Scarlett herself comes with a uniquely traumatizing past as well as an attraction to the more violent aspects of BDSM porn. The first episode is then allowed to creepily morph into something less resembling tainted innocence and more embracing dark and dreaded spirits finding, and enabling, one another. Throw in a sprinkling of Stephen King’s Carrie and it makes for a mighty fun morsel.

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Part 2 purposefully rocks the boat, though, and disrupts the terror elements, as AHS tends to do, by overcrowding the allegory and making things more ridiculous. It’s always a challenge to balance horror and humor and this franchise has, as the years went on, relied way more on sass and irreverence to assuage audience anxiety and fear. A little of this goes a long way and, sadly, the series tends to use too much of it. Horror can certainly have feel-good endings and moments of righteous redemption, but Part 2 dilutes the mix by propelling Scarlett and her new phantom girlfriend (played by “very obviously Cindy Crawford’s daughter” Kaia Gerber) forward as a pair of psychotic superheroes for a second half that plays more like a comedy.

McCormick, however, is great and super engaging as the center of these two episodes. Regardless as to how “Rubber(wo)Man” Part 2 wraps up, this is definitely a character who could slip into a different story somewhere else in the AHS-verse and feel quite at home as a comfortable psychopath. There’s Dexter-style quality to Scarlett’s transformation and aftermath and if Stories is at all meant to flesh out the entire franchise’s tapestry, then she’s a very welcome new stitch. Part 2’s issues mostly reside with Bomer and Creel’s characters and their marital drama distracting from Scarlett’s more interesting arc. They’re not unimportant characters, but their relationship implodes somewhat predictably and it sidetracks the whole story. Then there’s other orbiting nonsense involving house ghosts that make the story feel like it’s taking a few steps backwards.

American Horror Stories still may hold the key, ultimately, to this decade-long property’s issues. Rarely able to sustain a full season’s worth of suspense and/or entertainment, American Horror Story feels strained in its middle episodes, even within its better seasons. Here, in short form, it stands a chance of avoiding this. As it also does with the upcoming American Horror Story: Double Feature (yes, there’s still a new season coming in August) where the run of episodes will be divided into two separate stories, thus eliminating some the excess. Even with these shorter takes though, American Horror Story will still be challenged by tonal footing and not having elements and themes unduly devour one another.

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As per usual with American Horror Story, we’re given a mixed bag with the two-parter premiere of Stories. It’s a blend of fiendish and folly, with the more ridiculous aspects making the darker elements feel trivial and disposable. Sierra McCormick craftily carries the drama as Scarlett, presenting us with a ready-made slasher icon, but even with that it’s for the best that her story (presumably) ends here, as even with only two episodes, things were starting to fall apart by the finish.

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