The category is ’80s slasher realness, and American Horror Story: 1984 has more hallmarks of the genre than you can shake a machete at. Heavily leaning on Friday the 13th (its setting is a fictional camp that’s reopening years after a tragedy occurred, this one referred to as “the worst summer camp massacre of all time”) with Halloween for backup (the purveyor of said massacre was caught, locked up in a psychiatric facility, and successfully escapes on a rainy night, letting out the other patients with him), American Horror Story: 1984 is a loving tribute to cheap cinema of misanthropy and exploitation. It is also a savvy callback to a horror subgenre that seems poised to make a comeback after the smash success of last year’s Halloween, which grossed $159 million at the domestic box office. This season, the anthology series’s ninth, premiered Wednesday on FX.
The premiere provided a fun game of spot-the-reference: an old coot warning the twenty-something counselors driving to Camp Redwood to turn around, two of those counselors being peeped on as they hornily swim together at night, a cat scare. Ripping off Halloween and Friday the 13th is its own sort of trope—the profitable slashers gave birth to a slew of knock-offs in the ’80s that lived and died on VHS. The cast, which includes Emma Roberts (whose character is the self-proclaimed “last American virgin”), Billie Lourd (who’s made up to look like a ringer for original MTV VJ Nina Blackwood), and Cody Fern (with feathered highlighted hair and a dangly earring to make him look like George Michael in the ’80s and/or a contemporary Brooklyn hipster), is game. The performances vacillate from wooden to overwrought, and rather consciously so. There are funny touches like Olympic skier Gus Kentworthy as Chet, a hunky lug who was thrown out of the Olympics for failing a drug test, and Matthew Morrison as Trevor, whose giant penis upstaged Jane Fonda during the filming of her famous workout video, causing a reshoot and his firing. Besides Mr. Jingles, the murderer who killed a bunch of campers 14 years before and has returned to collect more body parts, there’s another killer on the loose, who’s based on the real-life Richard Ramirez (aka the Night Stalker). How the show will negotiate the blood thirst of two competing maniacs could be novel.
But thus far, 1984 is pastiche. Like Scream without the analysis, it is obsessed with what made slashers slashers with little more to say at any given moment than, “‘Member that?” Of course, being a TV show that has to air for several weeks and take up about 10 hours of airtime in total, it can’t be as flagrant with its characters’ wellbeing, which means there’s a lot of dead-end suspense when the show manages to be suspenseful at all. It’s fun enough, though, and the VHS-inspired intro is killer: