Alright, you know what, folks? As mixed as I was on last week’s two-part premiere, I am happy to admit that American Horror Stories has won me over this week. As fun as “Rubber(wo)Man” could be, it still fell prey to what many a Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk team-up does, particularly being too chock-full of ideas for its own good. But here, at the “Drive-In,” we’re handed something simple and clean: a cursed movie that drives people to murder.
From the get-go of the episode, writer Manny Coto and director Eduardo Sánchez commit to bringing humor to the proceedings. Practically every line seems designed to poke fun at the characters the episode presents. Everyone talks like they’re simultaneously idiots and also come from a place of extreme online and cinematic literacy. It is flat-out hilarious watching a teen discuss how a Reddit post told him that Bob Ross gives good ASMR vibes, which supposedly makes girls horny, only to have his friend note that the way to get laid isn’t about relaxation, “it’s fear.” The pivot from saying those words to immediately talking about how men in the 1930s went to Dracula to get laid because Bela Lugosi would scare their girlfriends, and not because “they liked Tod Browning’s mise-en-scene” is maybe the funniest joke ever made about film nerds on a TV show.
And that’s the kind of energy that the entire episode maintains. It’s unsurprising that Sanchez (who co-directed The Blair Witch Project) and Coto (who started his writing career through episodes of Tales From The Crypt and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) would be firmly in their wheelhouse when bringing a story of cinematic horror to life, but what’s so pleasantly surprising is how willing they are to make fun of the genre and its fans in a loving manner. In a way, it has the same energy as Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood; just an onslaught of masturbatory callbacks to other works, with a shameless wink and nod. A character explains who William Castle is at one point while another complains about someone trying to lecture her on how to project films properly (noting that she told Kubrick to go fuck himself when he tried to lecture her on aspect ratios for A Clockwork Orange).
Every scene seems designed to infuriate horror fans who take themselves too seriously and delight those with a sense of humor about their obsessions. As one of many dumb bitches on Film Twitter, as well as someone who spent a lot of their teen years trying to be edgy, I have been prone to hyping up obscure films that nobody cares about and citing publications that agree with me. And that’s why “Drive-In” works; it loves those people as much as it hates them. If any bit of the episode comes as the greatest proof of that, it’s John Carroll Lynch’s return to AHS, this time as the deranged director of the cursed film, Rabbit Rabbit.
His character, Larry Bitterman—and, yes, I laughed out loud upon realizing they named the director BITTER MAN—is so unhinged and decidedly a caricature of your typical auteur. The offense he takes at people making out and fucking in a car instead of paying attention to his film is gold. The offense he takes at The Sting winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards over The Exorcist (the film that inspired him to bring subliminal messaging into his own work) is even better. Coto has no shame in going to town on making fun of the way many filmmakers believe that their work is the peak of art and culture, perfectly punctuated by the quote, “My name will go down in cinema history: Kubrick! Coppola! Spielberg! And Larry fucking Bitterman!”
As decidedly entertaining as the episode is based on its dialogue, it must be said that “Drive-In” is ultimately a fairly basic work of horror. What kicks off with the cursed film gimmick more or less becomes something of a typical zombie or virus film with tons of disposable characters except for its leads. Neither Madison Bailey nor Rhenzy Feliz is particularly memorable, but they’re serviceable enough in roles that require them to deliver nothing more than the usual aloof teen horror movie stock character work. Nothing in the episode is actually scary, but the team instead goes for a playful cinematic language that’s grounded in goofier horror. The close-up on Ben J. Pierce’s eye through the steering wheel as they’re bobbing up and down on their friend’s cock, staring at the film and becoming increasingly swept away by insanity, is exquisite. Not to mention just how much fun the quick cuts between the 35mm projector to everyone else losing their minds over the film are.
The kills might be the biggest improvement from the last episode to this one. While they still don’t give quite enough attention to all the blood and guts that there should be, especially in an episode quite literally framed around people killing each other during a movie, there are some highlights. Getting to watch someone get their only remaining eye stabbed by scissors and someone’s head caved in with a film reel is exactly the kind of thing American Horror Stories should be indulging in more. “Drive-In” is proof that the series can give us bite-size horror that isn’t reliant on American Horror Story history and lore, and I can’t wait to see what other nonsense it has up its sleeve.
- I can kind of have a field day talking about this episode and its references to both history and cinema, but I’m really pleasantly surprised at how they weaved in Tipper Gore (played here by Amy Grabow). For those who aren’t aware, the former Second Lady was behind the Parental Guidance labels on albums with sexually explicit lyrics, violence, or drug use. She was pretty much seen as a censor by many when it came to art that could be considered “controversial” and using her as the inciting force for banning Rabbit Rabbit was smart stuff.
- One minor disappointment I had is that the show didn’t actually spend just a little more time showing me what Rabbit Rabbit was. Every brief flash and sound I heard just sounded and looked like a neat ass experimental horror film and, obviously, showing would ruin the fun of not knowing how “the picture and sound fuck with the brain,” but I would have loved a little more.
- A favorite thing to note is the pivot in opening credits. American Horror Story has always had choice credit design and the fact that each episode seems to have its own special aesthetic paired to the plot is just lovely. Watching this one really made me want to pop on Christine.
- I’ll admit I don’t think any of Bailey’s delivery of the typical final girl vengeance lines, like “let’s hunt this fucking director down” and “you put us in a horror movie, now we’re just returning the favor,” didn’t really work for me. They just lacked any real gravitas and I think that’s a shame.
- I love love love the opening and closing shots of the episode, decidedly dumb as hell and very much in tune with the show’s penchant for sex and stupidity. What could be more AHS than a calm night of Bob Ross and no sex traded in for a wild night of fucking and Rabbit Rabbit predictably hitting Netflix and the whole city going to hell?