Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: American Horror Story Coven: A festival of teething vaginas.

By Anči
not sure what's going on here, but the dismembered legs are definitely creepy.

This article marks the first edition of my "Women and horror" series.
I started putting this piece together after watching the premiere  episode of American Horror Story: Coven; aptly titled "Bitchcraft." (Though, I think we all agree that "A Festival of Teething Vaginas" makes infinitely more sense.)
Anyway,  I got distracted, and forgot I was planning on reviewing the season 3 opener, so here I am three weeks later, catching up:

BRIEF INTRO: The pilot opens on New Orleans 1834, in the luxurious estate of Delphine LaLaurie, a deceptively maternal and bloodthirstily psychotic slave owner, obsessed with power and beauty. In one of the first scenes, we see her applying blood to her face, in some creepy attempt at recapturing youth, or... perhaps recalling her long-lost period. 

Turns out the blood she's been slathering on her skin, comes from the group of African slaves, she's holding captive in her basement, for the purposes of... evildoing and unpleasantness (We're fed a glimpse of this, after Delphine banishes a handsome young slave to her torture chamber, for having consensual sex with her pretty white daughter.)

So far, we're off to a great start.

The story then advances a couple centuries, to present day, where we are met with a young couple in the throes of doing it. (presumably for the first time.)  And  because this is a horror show, we can guess how this scene will play out. (Hint: not with two satisfied sighs, after a mutually fulfilling flurry of fistings.) Turns out, the fornicating protagonist,  Zoe, has been afflicted with a particular brand of vagina dentata,  wherein her amorous passions propel her sex-buddy into a bloody seizure, culminating in his violent, and disgusting death. Oh and, Zoe's also a witch; which she discovers soon thereafter. (although the murderous hoohah should have been a giveaway.)

Cut to a scene of Zoe boarding a train, on her way to witch school...  where I guess the bulk of the storyline is supposed to take place. [In the background, creepy music signals oncoming doom.]

At the academy, she meets a group of fellow students: Nan, Queenie, and the beautiful Madison-- who is also a movie star. (Portrayed by Julia Roberts' look alike niece, Emma Roberts.)
Additional  players also include, headmistress Cordelia Foxx, and her mother, the "Supreme Witch" Fiona Goode, who's introductory scene echoes that of her slave-carving predecessor's, Delphine LaLaurie, from centuries before. (alzheimer patients: see first paragraph. Then send me that overdue birthday present. And this time include a receipt.)
Just like Delphine, the Supreme Witch Fiona is obsessed with youth and beauty. And just like Delphine, she resorts to torturing a man of color to attain it.
Only in this case, the man in question is a scientist,  who has been developing a formula to reverse the effects of aging. Naturally,  Fiona blackmails him into injecting her with this time-erasing serum, and when it doesn't work, she kills him.... by literally sucking the life force out of him, with a rousing tongue-kiss. (Turns out our saggy Supreme also has something in common with supernatural newbie Zoe, eh? Interesting how this particular genre associates destruction with women's sexualities.)

nothing phallic going on here.

But positioning female desire as a source of evil is nothing new-- in fact, it's a pretty hackneyed convention. And given this fact, you'd think the writer's would fork over something fresher, to justify their supernatural salmagundi. If not for the problematic nature of the original formula, then at least for the sake of quality television. Or maybe, out of respect for their viewers?
Also worth considering: Since genuine spookyness lies is in the unknown,  recycling tropes like the virgin/whore complex is the last thing a horror show wants to be doing. Predictability is the surest way to kill the mood. (in the genre, and in the shower.) How many times must the public be served with requisite killer vaginas before hollywood figures out that that shit is tired? Where are the screams? Where's the surprise? Booooring.

 And it gets 'better,' when the episode takes an awkward rapey turn. (awkward in terms of story flow. I'm not making light of rape. Please no letters. Unless they're taped to that birthday present you owe me, old man.)
In an abrupt change of pace, we cut back to Zoe (of deadly 'down there' fame) who goes to a party with her fellow school-witch Madison, (of Julia Roberts relation fame.)  A bunch of crazy shit ensues, beginning with a group of frat boys who spike Madison's drink, before systematically gang raping her-- in one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever illegally watched on my laptop.
Note however, that disturbing doesn't necessarily translate to compelling horror. As thrilling and gruesome as it is, the primary function of graphic imagery is to act as a flimsy substitute for content.  In this case, the effects play like the lazy byproduct of a  "buzzed" writer's room.. (Though I have no statistics to back that up.)  So....Still not impressed!

I did find the subsequent revenge scene very gratifying though: When a recovering/raging Madison,  uses the sorcery in her pinky to flip over the bus filled with her fleeing assailants--along with several of their innocent peers. Sad-face.

But that's when things get... complicated, and (for once,) much to the credit of the show writers:
Now Zoe (of the blossoming bear-trap) who witnessed the rape of her friend, is devastated to discover that one of the boys who perished in the enchanted bus-flipping, was a sweet guy she had met at the party. Her despair is further compounded by the reveal that the sole surviving member of the bus crash, was the ringleader of Madison's gang-rapists-- the mastermind who had deliberately deceived and drugged her, before violating her unconscious body.

If you remember from seven sentences ago, Zoe's magical curse is her toxic temple, which turns out to be useful here:  Yes, that's right: In a fit of righteous anger,  Zoe rapes the comatose rapist, until his head explodes and he dies.
 (pause for effect..)

To me, this particular plot device worked. As far-fetched as it sounds,  within the framework of a shaky storyline founded in patriarchy and rape culture, bla bla bla...  the retribution was justified, and very nearly saved the episode.
It goes without saying that most people including me are against rape, but because this show operates on the level of fairy tales, in its use of metaphor and symbolism, the "reverse-rape" scenario, provided us with a comforting revenge fantasy steeped in fictional-justice. After all, if every rapist was treated to a round of retributive rape,  women might feel safer going out at night, or riding the bus topless. And as a female viewer who felt genuinely threatened during the gratuitously drawn-out gang rape scene, I enjoyed the momentary vindication at the episode's climax  as I'm sure many other women did. Any thoughts?

For more discussions of AHS: Coven, stay tuned for my next episode of "Women and Horror"

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