TV Review: American Horror Story: Cult
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The seventh installment of American Horror Story, entitled Cult, has revived the show to a standard that hasn’t been present since Freak Show. It’s weird, disturbing, and amusing - which is exactly what AHS should be.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
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With the horror show that is America right now - mass shootings, sexist and racist values, the retraction of basic human rights, all being controlled by a reality TV presenter - it makes sense to use this as the inspiration for, well, a horror show. Cult takes fears we are all familiar with in our present situation, and amplifies them. The first few episodes are the weakest, since they basically consist of Sarah Paulson’s character, Ally, crying and screaming over clowns that may or may not be real - but try not to let that put you off, because it’s definitely worth sticking it out til the end.
Episode four is where things really start to get going, and Evan Peters begins to show his full potential in playing crazed Trump-supporting psychopath, Kai Anderson, who becomes not only a cult leader but a politician, working on these macabre assaults behind the scenes to sway the polls towards him as the only one who can ‘protect’ you. (Fake news, anyone?)
It’s about politics, but it’s not about politics. Trump’s election starts bringing out everyone’s dark sides - which, let’s be honest, isn’t far from the truth. At first there doesn’t seem to be any point to Kai forming a gang of clowns that go around killing people, but little by little the plot unravels - with a few twists and turns along the way - and eventually everything makes sense.
There’s an appearance from Freak Show’s Twisty the Clown, but he is more of a nod to the previous season rather than a plot device, connecting the past to the present as Kai’s “family” choose to dress up as clowns when killing their victims since, even if you’re not normally afraid of clowns, these clowns are damn scary. The presence of clowns also alludes to the disturbing clown craze that showed up in the news last year, wherein clowns started stalking unwilling victims in the USA. This is only one of the many, many, references to real life.
Other than the obvious digs at the elections, there are also various re-tellings, courtesy of Kai, of previous cult leaders including Jim Jones and Charles Manson (who, ironically, died today, on the date I’m writing this). Evan Peters plays both these characters, as well as Andy Warhol, and at one point even Jesus Christ himself. These bizarre reenactments of Kai’s own take on history aim to show how Kai’s followers will believe anything he says; they are ludicrous and amusing, but then you remember these are real events, and suddenly you’re perturbed again.
AHS has dabbled in manipulating history before, most notably during ‘Devil’s Night’ in Hotel, where real-life serial killers show up, but never to this extent. Arguably the most absurd of them all is during episode seven, when Lena Dunham makes her debut as Valerie Solanas, the female cult leader and writer of the SCUM manifesto who wanted to eliminate all males on Earth. Despite being an odd casting choice, Dunham plays her role well.
At this point we see threads of feminism start to take shape (or rather, that it’s not only men that can be fucked up, but women too) and the plot turns in another direction when we see that Valerie’s former lover Bebe (played by the gloriously creepy Frances Conroy) is the mastermind behind Kai too. But I digress: AHS dropped a bombshell by declaring that Valerie’s cult are, in fact, the infamous Zodiac Killer. While this is by far the most far-fetched theory of the season, it somehow works within the narrative, especially since it’s a further reference to pop culture - namely the meme during the presidential debates that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer.
Other scenes include a soundtrack of All-4-One’s I Swear while Kai tries to create a ‘Messiah baby’ by indirectly impregnating his sister, Kai instructing with the use of watermelons how to kill pregnant women effectively, and responding to Ally’s (false) news that her child is his son by saying ‘holy shitballs’. This strange relationship between fantasy and reality continues throughout the season, and is perhaps what makes it the most disturbing season of all; while there are endless wild, comically absurd scenarios, with the state of the world as it is right now, they almost seem… plausible.
In addition, this is the only season where there are no supernatural occurrences. Hallucinations and flashbacks, yes, but no real ghosts or monsters like in the rest of the series, which breed a different kind of fear. Cult has managed to produce a semi-serious social commentary that you can choose to admire or laugh at, while still enjoying the story.
By the end of the season, we learn that Bebe awoke the beast within Kai, originally wanting him to form a cult to ‘release female rage’ and continue Valerie’s legacy. Of course, he ended up going his own way, creating an army of white males who just want women to make them sandwiches. The ultimate twist, however, is revealed in the last few seconds when, after Kai is dead and Ally becomes senator, she has formed her own extremist feminist cult.
There is also another great pop culture reference when Ally tells Kai it is not a ‘humiliated man’ who is the most dangerous being on Earth, but a ‘nasty woman’ - which is also Trump’s nickname for Hillary Clinton. Ally has completely transformed from an irritating, cowardly marshmallow into a badass, evil genius.
So, after fearing men for the majority of the first ten episodes, it turns out the real moral of the story is… never piss off a woman.
American Horror Story: Cult aired on FOX UK and is available on demand.