If you like your horror dark—and I'm talking pitch black—strap yourself into your straight jacket for the new season of "American Horror Story." "Asylum" (9 p.m. CT Oct. 17, FX; 3 stars out of 4), as the new season is sub-titled, is just as perverse and disturbing as the first round.
Since Season 1 ended, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have informed us that each edition of the anthology series will begin with a fresh story and new characters that sometimes are played by actors from the previous season. So instead of returning to that haunted L.A. Victorian of Season 1, "Asylum" takes place at Briarcliff, a former tuberculosis ward in the Northeast that the Catholic Church transformed into a sanitarium for the criminally insane in the early 1960s.
The season opens in the present day, however, with newlyweds Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan Tatum) visiting the abandoned Briarcliff as part of their honeymoon efforts to have sex in the 12 most haunted places in America. It's not long after the couple uses an old electroshock chair for a different kind of therapy that they start hearing things going bump in the night.
"AHS" then flashes back to 1964 during the demented rule of Briarcliff by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who believes "mental illness is a fashionable explanation for sin." Long ago trading her ruler for a series of ever-larger whipping crops to "discipline" her patients, this woman is worse than any memory you might have of a cranky old nun.
Among the many folks Sister Jude can't stand is asylum physician Dr. Anthony Arden (James Cromwell), who appears to be just as depraved as she is. He's performing medical experiments on patients with the help of Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a mousy little thing who is terrified of Sister Jude.
Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) is in charge of this unholy trinity. Despite her feelings being lustful and wicked, Sister Jude has a thing for the holy man; she wears sexy red negligees under her habit.
Among the other characters are Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a lesbian reporter who runs afoul of Jude and becomes an unwilling patient; Shelly (Chloe Sevigny), a nymphomaniac in the asylum; Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), a visiting psychiatrist who objects to Jude's methods; and Kit Walker (Evan Peters), a man accused of being a serial killer called Bloody Face. (He claims, however, that aliens set him up. No, I am not kidding.)
Among the terrific cast, Lange and Cromwell are especially transfixing. It's no surprise Lange won an Emmy for her role in the first season. She's a powerhouse again, staying just on the right side of hammy as she spits one threat after another.
Murphy and Falchuk not only bring back their star and all the gut-wrenching depravity of the first season, but continue to play with favorite themes of power, fear, conformity and exclusion. Despite their lack of subtlety in presenting them at times, I fear those themes can get lost in all the gruesome imagery. One doesn't think clearly when shocked and appalled.
It's truly troubling to watch as helpless, restrained patients are treated against their wills. Yet despite mumbling over and over during the first episode, "I'm done with this already," I had to see the second.
I'm just not sure I can stomach 11 more episodes of this sick, twisted tale.
Watch the first five minutes of the premiere by clicking here.
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