Just when you needed it, the FX network is throwing American Horror Story at you.

To judge from its first two episodes, it’s a robust diversion from the real-life droughts and hurricanes, joblessness and political stalemate that were already giving you the willies.

It aspires to be The Shining-meets-Rosemary’s Baby, with Carrie and Don’t Look Now tossed in.

But more than a dead-on horror show, it’s a homage to cinematic spookery. And a good one. In short, American Horror Story doesn’t really scare you. It just gets in your head. The big unknown: Is it wily enough to stay there, week after week?

 

Alert: Spoilers coming up — which is another way of saying you might just as well apply the time you’d spend reading this to watching the premiere and then making up your own mind. You’ll find it a memorable experience, at least.

From the fertile imaginations of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee, Nip/Tuck), American Horror Story has a premise that is simple and time-honoured: A haunted house is occupied by a likable, remarkably unsuspecting family.

Ben Harmon (played by Dylan McDermott) is a Boston psychiatrist who has been caught cheating by his wife, Vivien (the wonderful Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights). She already was reeling from a late-term miscarriage. They need to make a fresh start. They and their teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga) pull up stakes and head cross-country for Los Angeles.

“This place is our second chance,” Ben tells Vivien, whose forgiveness he desperately seeks — if for no other reason than because she hasn’t slept with him for almost a year.

This place, the family’s new homestead, is a looming “classic L.A. Victorian from the 1920s,” according to the real-estate agent showing them around. But it seems more like a vestige of Monster Chiller Horror Theater, a domicile whose past residents have, of course, died gruesomely. Sold!

If the elements of this horror story seem second-nature, they take the form of striking imagery that, at times, makes them as unsettling as they are familiar.

The house, restored from its previous ramshackle condition, retains disturbing artifacts upon which the Harmons will stumble. The house also comes with strange neighbours. Jessica Lange plays Constance, a busybody Southern belle with an even more intrusive daughter, Adelaide, who (like Jamie Brewer, portraying her) has Down syndrome.

With his practice set up in the family home, Dr. Harmon’s ill-advised first client is a teen psychopath (Evan Peters), who bonds with the Harmons’ troubled daughter after they meet in the bathroom, where she’s cutting herself.

That’s not all the weirdness in store. Did we mention Moira, the longtime housekeeper (played by Frances Conroy, past matriarch of Six Feet Under)? She’s the sort of spectral figure who warns these new owners that the house “has a personality; feelings. Mistreat it and you’ll regret it.”

But Ben sees Moira another way. Spinsterish, middle-aged Moira appears to him as “Moira, Jr.” (played by Alexandra Breckenridge), a sexy young temptress with a scanty French-maid outfit and a come-on look.

The premiere dumps a number of major questions on the audience, including the most fundamental: Why do the Harmons stick around in this crazy house?

FX comes to Canada

American Horror Story will air on FX?Canada, which will launch on Nov. 1 as a digital service.

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