tv review

Seitz: American Horror Story, The Returned, and Dracula Do Small-Screen Horror Right

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Dracula. Photo: Jonathan Hession/NBC

It’s a bloody good time for horror on television. Right now the grid offers vampires and lycanthropes, witches and zombies, serial killers and spree killers, in tonal variation: relatively chaste psychodramas and sweaty humpfests, horror-­flavored dramas and lighthearted adventures.

It’s a bit of a shame that AMC’s The Walking Dead is TV’s highest-rated horror series because it’s among the least compelling. Now shambling through season four, it remains one of TV’s most inexplicably popular shows—or maybe explicably popular, alas. Despite legit-scary moments, it’s as dramatically sophisticated as a weak soap, easy to half-watch and easier to hate-watch. Will Rick and the gang defend the prison against the zombie hordes? Will Rick find time to get it on with the badass swordswoman Michonne? Will Daryl and Carol become a memorable TV couple even though their names rhyme and she calls him “Pookie”? And, after four seasons, will the show reveal some semblance of a point? At least makeup master Greg Nicotero keeps topping himself; he’s a master sculptor working in Karo syrup and latex. Luckily, though, The Walking Dead is surrounded by horror shows that take risks, of a sort, and that play sprightly games with genre expectations. MTV’s Teen Wolf might be the best series based on a really stupid movie since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its mix of teen angst, superheroic mayhem, and poker-faced philosophizing is very Joss Whedon, even more so than the solidly entertaining and seemingly indestructible Supernatural (now in its ninth season) and The Vampire Diaries (in its fifth).

The freshmen series Bates Motel and Hannibal sliced through the first half of 2013 like dervishes. Both were present-day “prequels” built around too-familiar serial-killer narratives, and both did new and frequently astonishing things with the one-hour weekly form. Vera Farmiga’s sensitive work as Norma Bates and Mads Mikkelsen’s unexpectedly dapper and empathetic work as Hannibal’s flesh-eating shrink demonstrated that horror was perfectly suited to modern TV’s post-Sopranos urge to create sympathy for devils. By delving deep into the tortuous relationship between Norma and her son, Norman, and expanding its scope and scrutinizing the hothouse corners of their furtive little Northwest town, the show evoked Twin Peaks in the best way. Hannibal was even more fascinating: a waking nightmare that might be the most purely visual (and visually arresting) series to air on American network TV since Miami Vice almost 30 years ago. Its bizarrely fussed-over tableaux reached back into horror history, beyond TV, beyond cinema even, to reconnect with Grand Guignol theater and the history of Western painting, with special emphasis on Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí. On both shows, a big part of the excitement comes from wondering, Is any of this working? An impressive percentage of the time, the answer is yes.

American Horror Story’s third season, subtitled Coven, is part bitchy-cutesy ­misfit-teen drama about witches in training, part antebellum race nightmare about a slave-torturing New Orleans society lady (Kathy Bates) supernaturally transplanted into the present. Returning star Jessica Lange steals the show, as she always does. She plays a stylish succubus looking for a personal fountain of youth while spouting militant slogans to her young charges, who’ve been warned to keep a low profile. As always, there’s an extra-dramatic excitement to American Horror Story, and it comes from wondering if series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk will be able to mix several brands of oil and several types of water. But it’s okay. If they don’t pull it off, there’ll be a new story with new characters next season. Both its form and its content are, for commercial TV, quite radical. It is simultaneously a mini-series and an anthology show (with the season rather than the episode as unit of measure), and it thrills at the chance to be at once trivial and cathartic, pandering to lust and bloodlust while sympathizing with society’s underdogs. It’s the show that HBO’s True Blood promised to be, and briefly was, and likely never will be again.

Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and NBC’s Dracula (debuting October 25) liven up old horror stories with lush visuals and conspiracy-laden story lines about secret societies. In Sleepy Hollow, reawakened nineteenth-century soldier Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) teams up with small-town cop Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) to battle the Headless Horseman, a harbinger of coming apocalypse. The series has some of the same coiled comic energy as Tim Burton’s same-named 1999 film; it’s a comedy-­horror concoction, with action scenes that split the difference between brutality and elegance, and Scully-and-Mulder–style banter between Ichabod and Abbie. The hero’s fish-out-of-water rants are priceless. “What’s insane is a 10 percent levy on baked goods,” he grouses. “You do realize the Revolutionary War began on less than 2 percent? How is the public not flocking to the streets in outrage?” When the show threatens to become too arch, the horseman comes stalking in, blades flashing. He’s a great screen monster; he and the Terminator would have a lot to not talk about.

Better still is the French mini-series The Returned, which makes its American debut on the Sundance Channel on October 31. Pushing against TV horror’s tendency toward emphatic music and quick cutting, this early Stephen King–style tale of small-town creepiness takes its cues from older horror films in which silence and pregnant pauses put viewers off balance before springing the scares. People who were long dead start coming back without warning or explanation (a development signaled by an early, stunning image of a pinned butterfly crashing through a glass display case), sparking confusion and terror. Some of the encounters evoke the returned abductees in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while others have the nasty, bone-deep chill you associate with John Carpenter’s stalk-and-kill classics. Beneath it all is an air of existential dread. The universe is out of order. Life itself has gone haywire.

NBC’s Dracula bears little relation to Bram Stoker’s original story, but that’s not a bad thing. The show’s big selling point is its continual sense of surprise—well, that and its production values. A period piece by some of the producers behind Rome, Carnivàle, and Twin Peaks, Dracula is a steampunk-flavored reboot of the story, with all of our expected sympathies inverted. It looks like the most lavishly funded network show since, well, Hannibal (maybe NBC should replace the peacock logo with a pile of burning money). Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the go-to leading man for tales of decadent, sexually avid anti-heroes, plays Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, a Drac drawn from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film—a tragic anti-hero, out of his time in late-nineteenth-century London, posing as the American industrialist Alexander Grayson, falling madly in love with the (possible) reincarnation of his great lost love, Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), and plotting to defeat the minions of the Order of the Dragon, a Stonecutters type of secret society that’s responsible for his epic suffering. The show has a knack for Godfather-style plots and counter­plots, as well as for sixties Hammer-horror violence that doles out gore and suffering strategically: a dollop of blood here, a severed head there. There’s a bracing wantonness to the writers’ inventions here. Nobody—not Dracula, not Mina, not Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), not even the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann)—is quite as you expect them to be. Horror is a genre filled with dying and dead and undead things, but its pulse is undeniable. You can hear its heartbeat.

American Horror Story: Coven. FX. Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
The Returned. Sundance Channel. Thursdays at 9 p.m.
Dracula. NBC. Fridays at 10 p.m.

*This article originally appeared in the October 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Seitz on the New Wave of Small-Screen Horror