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‘American Horror Story’ is frighteningly familiar

From left: Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, and Connie Britton move from Boston to a 1920s-era house in Los Angeles in which a murder-suicide took place. From left: Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, and Connie Britton move from Boston to a 1920s-era house in Los Angeles in which a murder-suicide took place. (Robert Zuckerman)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 5, 2011

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Don’t go down to the basement! FX’s “American Horror Story’’ pulls that cliche out quickly enough in tonight’s premiere at 10. In a prologue set in 1978, twin boys with red hair are heading slowly down the stairs in an abandoned haunted house and - creak, creak - well, no spoilers here.

Alas, no surprises here, either. “American Horror Story,’’ from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk of “Glee’’ and “Nip/Tuck,’’ is a very standard creep-fest, an aggressively stylized mash-up of familiar haunted-house movies including “The Amityville Horror,’’ “The Haunting,’’ and “The Shining.’’ It’s only partially redeemed by its slickly seductive production design and by the indelible supporting work of Jessica Lange. As a sinister neighbor with a Southern accent who drops by with Ipecac-flavored cupcakes, Lange is fantastically over the top.

The “American Horror Story’’ concept is basic. Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton are Ben and Vivien Harmon, who’ve moved from Boston to Los Angeles to start over again. She had a stillborn child, he had an affair, and their teen daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), is still angry about it all. When they look at the 1920s-era house, the realtor discloses that a gay couple died in the house in a murder-suicide. Plus, their dog begins to bark at the basement door. But they buy it anyway, they move in, and Ben, a psychiatrist, begins seeing patients in his office.

Quickly, the old tropes begin to fly. Ghosts emerge, Ben has troubled dreams, a mysterious housekeeper shows up to work (played by Frances Conroy and, when Ben looks at her, the younger Alexandra Breckenridge), and one of Ben’s psychotic patients is trying to hook up with Violet. The house is serving up some kind of psychosexual funhouse-mirror of the Harmons, which may be why McDermott spends so much of the premiere running around the house naked. Moira, the housekeeper, refers to the house as characters on “Lost’’ referred to the island, as if it has a mind of its own. “Mistreat it and you’ll regret it,’’ she tells the Harmons. It looks as though this haunted house, like most other ones, is out to destroy everyone who ever lives in it, using their individual psychologies to bring them down.

The show’s barrage of scary and sexually taunting events is too constant and surreal to have a big impact. After a while, the story seems to have no more depth and logic than an artsy music video. There’s no precise buildup to the frights, with small hints of what’s to come. There’s no tension and release, just release. Maybe Murphy and Falchuk think that if they fire unrelenting rounds of shocks at us, we won’t notice that the bullets are hackneyed.

Aside from Lange, the acting ranges from just fine to irritating. Britton is sympathetic if vague as a woman healing from a tragedy and from a betrayal. McDermott, though, works too hard emoting. He gives a forced performance, one that, like the show itself, is all bluster. Maybe the house in LA is going to wind up delivering unexpected thrills as “American Horror Story’’ develops in the coming weeks. But after two episodes, it feels more like the place where old horror movies have come to die.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.


Starring: Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Jessica Lange, Denis O’Hare, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga

On: FX

Time: Tonight, 10-11