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American Horror Story: Double Feature Season Premiere Review: “Cape Fear” and “Pale”

American Horror Story: Double Feature premieres Wednesday, Aug. 25 on FX, and Thursday, Aug. 26 on Hulu.

Warning: Slight spoilers for the first two episodes follow…

Divided into two parts — the stories “Red Tide” and “Death Valley” — American Horror Story’s tenth official season, Double Feature, kicked things off with the one-two punch opener, “Cape Fear” and “Pale.” It’s a slow-going, and somewhat soggy and grey, start with “Cape Fear,” but the Red Tide tale picked up significantly with “Pale,” delivering a fresh Shining-style writer’s block spin on vampires.

Though not as dramatic a format shift as FX on Hulu’s summer series American Horror Stories, which was a straight episodic anthology, Double Feature also seems like it’s out to solve American Horror Story’s middling middle-episode problem. Even when the series significantly shortened its seasons, around the time of Roanoke, it still had issues maintaining momentum and narrative focus. Now, still sticking with a 10-episode season, American Horror Story is giving us two five-chapter sagas, one by the sea and the other by the sand, in an attempt to craft tighter, stronger scares.

Red Tide rolls in with a handful of AHS familiars, including mainstays Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson (of course) in supporting roles, along with Finn Wittrock and Lily Rabe as an unsuspecting couple, Harry and Doris Gardner, wintering in the seasonally desolate Provincetown, Mass., to help them both focus on their creative careers. Right out of the gate, it’s clear the sleepy streets are plagued with Salem’s Lot-looking bloodsuckers, though the local law (Adina Porter) chalks most incidents up to tweakers and speed freaks. “Cape Fear,” the first episode, is mostly standard horror set-up stuff, presenting us with an unlikable family about to be in over their heads in an attempt to better themselves. Meta aspects aside, it is interesting how many scary stories involve frustrated artists looking to find fame or recapture old glory.

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“Cape Fear” isn’t quite good enough to stand on its own, even with the introduction of Peters and Frances Conroy’s friendly and fancy fellow writers, Austin and Sarah, who claim to have the key to unlocking any budding wordsmith’s full potential. It ends with Harry agreeing to take a mystery “muse” pill and blasting out into full manic genius mode, but it’s not as good of a grabby cliffhanger as we find at the end of “Pale,” in which Harry and Austin’s violinist daughter, Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), takes a pill and joins her dad in the realm of cursed vampirism. That was a very good twist of the knife, and one that made the Gardner family’s plight a lot more interesting, since Harry going feral all by himself wasn’t all that captivating.

Some vampire lore is sort of sacred, narratively, even though it’s all just “make ’em ups.” Attempts to stray too far from tried-and-true vampire rules can often go awry, but Red Tide’s take is a fairly fun one, delivering a horde of undead weirdos who, apparently, are all, or were all, aspiring creatives. The mystery pill offered up by playwright Austin apparently only gives you boundless gifts if you already had innate talent to begin with. If you’re a hack, you become a mindless vampiric animal plaguing the overcast shores. As a functioning vampire, though, one’s teeth don’t even turn into fangs. You can opt to have them sharpened for convenience (when it comes to killing). There’s definitely a different set of rules to introduce here, which is where Harry comes in handy the most, but it’s not so much that it lessens the bite of the story.

“Cape Fear” isn’t quite good enough to stand on its own.

With these first two episodes, Red Tide builds nicely from a kind of boring bummer into a fiendish family affair, playing with the idea that a particular pop-culture portrayal of vampires is that of an insufferable, immortal noble. So why not create a legion of them out of awful sell-their-soul wannabes? Most aspects of American Horror Story deal with the clash between the clever so-called “coastal elite” and horror tropes, and Red Tide keeps that formula chugging along, but this particular vampire tale holds potential. Though, one has to wonder how these vamps connect to the lore in AHS: Hotel, given that this is all a shared universe.

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