Cody Fern as Xavier Plympton checks under the bed in a still from 'American Horror Story - 1984'
Cody Fern as Xavier Plympton checks under the bed in a still from 'American Horror Story - 1984'
American Horror Story: 1984 (2019)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 30 Jun 2021

ACMI Recommends: American Horror Story: 1984

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Summer Gooding

Experience & Engagement Coordinator, ACMI

Dig out your leotard and dive into a heartfelt homage to horror’s bloody icons.

American Horror Story: 1984 takes us back to the mid 80s when slasher films were at their best. There’s gore, sex, and a creepy summer camp, but there’s also a surprising amount of heart. Fans of slasher classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are sure to enjoy this riff on horror’s icons.

AHS: 1984 follows a group of camp counsellors as they set off for Camp Redwood to escape Los Angeles during the summer of the (real-life) Richard Ramirez killing spree (aka The Night Stalker). While the inclusion of Ramirez lends the show real-life flare, AHS: 1984 isn’t interested in glorifying a genuine murderer. Instead, his character is a caricature of his infamous public identity – more a diehard Billy Idol fan than bloodcurdling killer. The real focus of this slasher is the fictional ‘Mr. Jingles’; a janitor responsible for a massacre at Camp Redwood a decade prior to the arrival of AHS: 1984’s protagonists – or so the fireside story goes.

AHS: 1984 excels in many areas – costumes, soundtrack, casting, dark comedy and its glorious campy streak. So, how does it maintain our attention over a whole season, when typical slashers run for two hours max? The answer lies in how it lures its killer into the spotlight – in contravention of the faceless, two-dimensional murderer common to the slasher genre. Our killer, Mr. Jingles, is visually revealed early in the series which, at first, seems like a letdown. Isn’t it scarier if you don’t know who lurks in the dark? If you can’t see their face? Even if their spooky killer name is… Mr. Jingles? But AHS: 1984 is smart. Exposing the killer early makes for a gripping storyline, as we get to know him and the twists and turns that plague his story over nine episodes. The result is a consistently enjoyable, nuanced slasher story with more heart than it has any right to possess. But it’s not all about Mr. Jingles. The eclectic cast of summer camp counsellors are richly formed, with each character adding to the show’s glam, campy universe. Whether its final girl archetype Brooke (Emma Roberts) or mysterious camp nurse Rita (Angelica Ross) – everyone will find a problematic fav to root for.

Emma Roberts as Madison Montgomery in a still from 'American Horror Story - 1984'

Emma Roberts as Madison Montgomery in a still from 'American Horror Story: 1984'

Aside from its narrative choices, AHS: 1984 capitalises on the current nostalgia beat, embracing the best hairstyles and fashion of a colourful and eccentric decade. From the pastel Nancy Drew fits of resident good girl Brooke to the cheetah print spandex rocked by Montana (Billie Lourd) during her aerobics classes, it’s the best of the best of the 80s. However, it should be noted that side effects of binge-watching AHS: 1984 include a sudden and overwhelming urge to embrace Lycra, mullets, and blue eye shadow – dangerous territory, folks.

The cherry on top is AHS: 1984’s soundtrack; an impeccable collection of 80s highlights – Hall & Oates, The Pointer Sisters, Def Leppard, and Stevie Nicks, to name a few – which effortlessly punctuate both dark and comedic moments. Take the use of Billy Idol’s White Wedding, with the song kicking off at the very moment a wedding scene turns... ugly. AHS: 1984 knows exactly what it is and doesn’t shy away from indulging in itself – what other show would unironically include Def Leppard songs (twice)?

The strength of AHS: 1984’s world allows it to perfectly balance sentimentality, horror and humor on the sharpest of knife edges. While there are countless nods to the slasher oeuvre, it manages to bring something new to the butcher’s table through an investment in its cast of campy misfits. It’s a refreshing luxury to have the space and time of a series to get to know a horror story’s characters – before (and after) they’re murdered. AHS: 1984 is everything you want a slasher to be, with the bonus of an unexpected warming of the heart. No offence, but Jason Vorhees could never

Summer Gooding

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