“American Horror Story: Delicate” Review – Premiere Delivers Promise, Purpose and Pregnancy Scares

Despite all of American Horror Story’s witches, vampires, murder Santas, and serial killers, the anthology series has always suffered from an identity crisis and focus issues. American Horror Story’s 12th season comes in after what was arguably the series’ strongest season in over a decade that would have made for a powerful, poignant way to conclude the anthology horror series. Instead, American Horror Story: Delicate ventures into risky, overdone territory with this pregnancy body horror drama.

What’s significant about AHS: Delicate is that it features some major firsts for the series. For one, American Horror Story: Delicate is the first season where series creator Ryan Murphy isn’t showrunner. Instead, Hailey Feiffer–a playwright–takes over these duties and writes the entire season. This is also the first time that American Horror Story explicitly adapts source material instead of throwing a bunch of genre tropes and clichés into a blender that gets its top taken off halfway through the season.

AHS: Delicate adapts Danielle Valentine’s novel, Delicate Condition, a cautionary postmodern pregnancy horror story that would be an effective idea two decades ago. Many hold up Rosemary’s Baby as the be-all end-all pregnancy horror movie, but the past decade has showcased comparable horror movies like False Positive, Bed Rest, The Offering, Huesera: The Bone Woman, STARZ’s Dead Ringers, or even something in the vein of a pregnancy home invasion movie, like L’Interiuer. There have largely been diminishing returns on this subject matter, many of which circle around the same ideas and fail to say much new on the topic beyond the idea that women can be just as predatory as men in this fragile, vulnerable field. Feiffer has impressive experience writing on this subject matter and seems like a perfect voice to bring this story to life. That being said, American Horror Story: Delicate faces a tall task to reinvent this popular horror subgenre. Fortunately, it looks like it’s up to the challenge after the encouraging events of the season premiere, “Multiply Thy Pain.”

“Multiply Thy Pain” is largely focused on Anna Victoria Alcott (Emma Roberts), an A-lister who’s finally ready to put parenthood on as high of a pedestal as her career after several failed attempts at IVF treatment. Alcott doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Roberts, whose professional trajectory isn’t that dissimilar to her own. Alcott’s hopefulness comes in strong, but progressively wavers when in the face of constant subjugation. Early on in “Multiply Thy Pain,” Anna’s husband, Dex (Matt Czuchry), mansplains IVF procedures, which immediately sets up their skewed power dynamic. Anna lacks any authority or agency despite her celebrity status.

The feelings of invisibility and paranoia that typically consume this horror subgenre crop up with Anna as she deals with a negligent doctor, husband, and world at large who ignore her in favor of the men in her orbit that so obviously know best. It’s a common trait of these types of horror stories, but it’s less cloying here because it’s sadly so true to life. They may be overdone ideas, but it’s because they increasingly populate the world. Further to this point, Anna’s heavy medication and twilight anesthesia poison her confidence so that any odd sight can be dismissed as residual wooziness or “Pregnancy Brain.” These justified forms of gaslighting repeatedly push Anna to question her instincts. This makes for an engaging start to the season, but American Horror Story: Delicate still struggles to explain why Anna deserves to be victimized. Because she pushed back her IVF treatment one day so that she could be on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen? It’s not exactly the same as drinking or smoking while pregnant.

There’s a lot of grim commentary on how children only perpetuate the Earth’s end. They’re the problem, not the solution. Meanwhile, ungrateful kids are glued to the screen of their devices while they make life more difficult for the adults who have paid for it all. It’s a bitter, angry place for this season that runs in complete opposition to Anna’s sheer passion for bringing a life into this world. It quickly establishes a heightened universe that wants its audience to view it in black-and-white extremes. ”Multiply Thy Pain” also deserves credit for the speed at which it operates. This bodes well for the rest of the season’s pacing going forward.

Even the episode’s title, “Multiply Thy Pain,” makes reference to the difficult road that pregnancy sets women down. The title pulls from the epigraph that begins Valentine’s Delicate Condition, which in turn evokes a Bible verse: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children…” Genesis 3:16, ASV. This quickly sets American Horror Story: Delicate up for some brutal Old Testament theatrics with not only Anna Alcott, but her entire gender. Denis O’Hare’s Dr. Hill casually remarks during the start of Anna’s IVF treatment that he’s “feeling very optimistic about our chances.” However, the greater worry that begins to overtake Anna–and the audience–is over their chances for what exactly.

So much of “Multiply Thy Pain” rests on Roberts’ shoulders and she doesn’t exactly rise to the occasion. This is far from her best work or most interesting character in a Ryan Murphy production and Kim Kardashian hardly makes for an exciting foil or challenging scene partner. On that note, Kardashian is completely fine as Siobhan. In fact, she’s actually a pretty natural fit for this PR-driven role. However, don’t expect a career-turning performance out of her like American Horror Story has done with other newcomer actors like Lady Gaga back in AHS: Hotel. She’s still bringing more to the table than Cara Delevingne in weird glasses, however.

Anna’s IVF woes present tangible fears, but American Horror Story: Delicate also inundates her mind with toxic imagery. There’s a wealth of broken, bloody egg visuals in this premiere that quite unsubtly turn these restorative images of fresh life into haunting curses. The spider web hair and stitch-mouthed scenes deliver effective, economical scares. They’re simple, creepy, and encouraging for the rest of the season’s set pieces. AHS: Delicate’s opening credits are also better than ever, which shouldn’t be the major takeaway here, but it’s nice to see them really embracing some uncomfortable symbolism.

“Multiply Thy Pain” isn’t afraid to evoke weird, tangential scares like its recurring freaky doll, but in a way that still feels natural to the story instead of just some nonsensical nightmare that provokes the viewer just because. American Horror Story: Delicate works hard to reconcile and justify its creepy iconography. Jessica Yu is one of American Horror Story’s most consistent directors and she sets a striking, sterile visual look for the season in this premiere. The season’s musical score is also low-key one of the premiere’s secret weapons. Melodies echo and reverberate as if these characters are trapped in a womb.

AHS: Delicate introduces some potentially exciting ideas, but it’s still too soon to see where they go and how they’ll play out. One of the most intriguing theories that’s raised in “Multiply Thy Pain” is that Anna’s IVF treatment will somehow implant her with the embryo of Dex’s dead ex-wife, Adeline, so that she can live on through their daughter or some other Frankenstein’s Monster madness. At this point it’s just a fun riff on the first season of Vampire Diaries when it comes to its past lovers and variations on a theme. This is at least more creative than if Anna were simply to give birth to some generic demon spawn (although that seems to be what this anti-pregnancy cult believes). 

American Horror Story: Delicate takes off to a methodical, patient start that’s largely occupied with introductory table setting for what’s to come. “Multiply Thy Pain” is a fairly standard American Horror Story season premiere that begins exactly how one would expect. However, AHS: Delicate reflects a lot of early promise and its largely new creative staff means that there are genuine reasons to believe that American Horror Story won’t succumb to the same formulaic mistakes that have defined it for years.

3 skulls out of 5

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