“Camp Redwood” provided a fresh start for the anthology series in a love-letter to a decade of slashers.
This recap of American Horror Story: 1984 Episode 1, “Camp Redwood”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
After American Horror Story: Apocalypse did the whole shared universe crossover jamboree thing, it only seems right that the ninth season of the show, American Horror Story: 1984 (FX), feels like a back-to-basics retooling of the concept. The setup this time is much leaner; it’s a love-letter to the dumb-fun slasher flicks of its title decade. Sarah Paulson is nowhere to be seen. The whole thing feels stripped down and focused in a way that a new season in an anthology series should, and since the show itself is having so much fun with its premise, the audience might as well too.
But it’s the cast who seem to be enjoying themselves the most. The nominal lead this time around is Emma Roberts as Brooke, the straightlaced shoo-in for the final girl, though you have to imagine American Horror Story won’t adhere to the rulebook in that regard. But Billie Lourd as the wannabe aerobics star Montana Duke brings a whirlwind of sass and sexual charisma that livens up every scene she’s in. The rest of the 80s slasher tropes are capably filled by Cody Fern as fitness instructor Xavier, real-life Olympic medal-holder Gus Kenworthy as jock Chet, and DeRon Horton as party-boy Ray, though there are adult parts for Matthew Morrison and Angelica Ross as the camp’s hilariously well-endowed activities manager Trevor and nurse Rita, respectively.
If this all sounds familiar, well… it’s supposed to. You can’t move for references to classic genre fare in “Camp Redwood”, the woodland setting’s very name redolent of Jason Voorhees’ favorite killing ground. And the place is, naturally, steeped in horrific history as the site of nine murders in 1970, all perpetrated by the ear-collecting Vietnam vet Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch, appropriately menacing). The place has been reopened by Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), the pious sole-survivor of that massacre who is trying to retool her darkest memories for a new generation of campers who hopefully won’t meet the same fate she did. No such luck.
For an episode that is clearly designed to introduce the various characters, their personalities and relationships, the history of the setting and its potential new (and old) dangers, “Camp Redwood” is remarkably well-stocked with overt homages to or at least knowing nods in the direction of classic slasher films and their attendant tropes. We have a group deciding to work the summer away in the woods and recounting horrific legends around the campfire, the weirdo gas station attendant (Don Swayze), the stranded hiker, an escape from an asylum in the pouring rain, lots of falling over while running away — the whole shebang.
It’s fun spotting these things, and American Horror Story: 1984 has fun positioning them for the audience to spot, but it also does a good job of establishing not one but two potential serial killers — the other being real-life murderer Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez (Zach Villa), who pursues Brooke to Camp Redwood — alongside some subtle connections to previous seasons. The cast is more than game, and the 80s aesthetic and synthy soundtrack are bang-on — the whole thing’s camper than a row of pink tents, and better for it.
The question is whether the pastiche can be sustained for a ten-episode season and if it can’t what American Horror Story: 1984 will decide to do. A major midpoint twist is certainly a possibility, and whether that will come as a disappointment or a welcome surprise will, I suppose, depend. But in the meantime, it’ll be fun finding out.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.