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American Horror Story: Cult Could Have Been So Much More

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This post contains spoilers for the American Horror Story: Cult finale.

On Tuesday night, the scattered, tonally confused American Horror Story: Cult ended with a whimper—and a few callbacks. As many likely predicted, Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards ultimately overcame Evan Peters’s Kai Anderson, with some help from Beverly Hope (Adina Porter). “You were wrong,” Ally tells Kai as he realizes his attempt to murder her will not work. “There is something more dangerous than a humiliated man: a nasty woman.”

The idea she’s refuting is one Kai himself uttered during this year’s season premiere, after being laughed out of a city-council hearing. His political rise—first to city council, then to Senate and, he’d hoped, to the White House—was all built on that promise, on the power of male humiliation. As an emerging cult leader, Kai painted himself as an everyman, eager to make life better for young white men who were convinced that P.C. culture was subjugating and abandoning them. In reality, those close to him knew that his game was more about provoking fear and anger in the hopes of building himself up.

Ahead of this season, Ryan Murphy had already told fans they were in for a supernatural-free story line that drew its inspiration from the 2016 election. Unfortunately, like so many ripped-from-headlines TV gambits, A.H.S.: Cult struggled to find enough distance from its source material to say anything substantive. The political elements turned out to be the weakest facet of the season, and what’s worse, Cult also seemed bent on cutting short each and every potentially interesting twist.

Tuesday’s finale began with a flash-forward to 2018, with Kai in prison—but already scheming and building up an army, preparing to escape. We find out eventually that it was Ally who worked with the F.B.I. to take Kai down—and that she showed Beverly mercy, telling police she had never seen Beverly do anything illegal. Kai knows Ally turned him in, and intends to exact revenge. So he charms a guard, Gloria, and convinces her to join his movement. In a Silence of the Lambs-like move, he mutilates an inmate who looks like him, removing his face to prevent immediate identification as he sneaks out of the prison with Gloria in a guard uniform. He then shows up at a political debate, where Ally is fighting an incumbent for a Senate seat.

He plans to assassinate his enemy, but his gun doesn’t work. As it turns out, Gloria screwed him over—and Beverly, who is armed, shoots him after Ally corrects Kai about who is really more dangerous. In the end, Ally tucks her son Oz into bed before heading out to a meeting with some “political people.” Once Oz is asleep, she dons a green velvet hood—the costume of Bebe Babbitt and Valerie Solanas’s feminist cult. And, scene!

This chapter of A.H.S. attempted to mock the political left and the political right with equal vigor, but those efforts left its satire tonally confused. By the time we get to its ending, with Ally donning the hood, it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to think: has she taken a triumphant vow to overcome the patriarchy, or is this an ominous sign that though one cult has been defeated, another that’s just as bad will soon take its place? Ally ran for office on the promise of destroying the two-party system, comparing it to the cult she had just escaped. Does being part of a cult make her a hypocrite?

Perhaps it’s these questions we’re meant to ask during Paulson’s long, lingering look into the mirror. But given how inscrutable and, at times messy the season has been, this ambiguity feels more like the result of shallow storytelling than deep moral inquiry.

Unfortunately, the season’s commitment to keeping its twists unpredictable meant a lot of time-jumping and ex post facto explanations—thereby glossing over or completely skipping what could have been the season’s most intriguing moments, and avoiding what could have been its most fascinating questions. In many ways, this season succeeded in being timely—and not always in a positive way. But true satire does more than simply offer a warped mirror image of reality—and Cult’s inability, or outright refusal, to take a stand in any tangible way has made this season feel puzzling at best. As far as we can tell, the only thing the show believes is that there are dangerous, obnoxious people on many sides—and who, exactly, does that align him with?

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*The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari*

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Because nothing says horror like a 1920 German Expressionist film. This classic about a murderous hypnotist is inspiring now for its groundbreaking cinematography and sheer artfulness, more of a gorgeous film noir than a real horror story.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

*Dracula*

Dracula

The original cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel is a must-see for film fans. It’s the mother of all vampire movies, featuring an indelible performance by Bela Lugosi and some really lush cinematography. (This scene alone of Dracula’s wives awakening is a thing of pure beauty.) Plus, it’s from the 1930s—there’s no way it’ll scare you.

Photo: From Everett Collection.

*Psycho*

Psycho

Ah, yet another classic that all film fans should have in their back pocket. The seminal Alfred Hitchcock thriller shocked audiences in 1960 with its jarring shower scene and ultimate plot twist, but it won’t horrify modern viewers the same way. Hitchcock was more about suspense than jump scares, even if Pyscho still gives you a healthy bout of chills.

Photo: From Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

*Carrie*

Carrie

Speaking of old movies that aren’t scary-scary by modern standards, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of this Stephen King novel about a bullied high-school girl with a zealous mother is yet another standard-bearer that scared people at the time of its release. Now it’s got a sort of hokey 70s aesthetic that won’t spook viewers more accustomed to sophisticated special effects.

Photo: From United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

*Paranorman*

Paranorman

This stop-motion kids comedy is a joyful story about a boy who sees dead people. (For the scary version, go stream The Sixth Sense.) It’s more of a delightful coming-of-age tale with genuine laughs, and some spooky animated creatures for good measure.

Photo: From Focus Features/Everett Collection.

*What We Do in the Shadows*

What We Do in the Shadows

Much like Shaun, this 2014 mockumentary flips a genre on its head, poking fun at the wild and sexy lore of vampires. Written and directed by New Zealand’s finest, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also star, the film is about a trio of vampires just living everyday life—splitting house chores, trying to get invited into nightclubs—which takes a turn when they have to take in a new 20-year-old vampire.

Photo: From Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

*Get Out*

Get Out

Make no mistake: Jordan Peele’s excellent debut feature is a horror movie through and through, with highly unsettling twists and turns. But the horror doesn’t rely on twisted jump scares or unsightly violence; instead, it’s baked into the film’s brilliant social commentary on modern racism. And if that’s not enough, take it from another wimp—this is a horror hit you can candle.

Photo: From Universal/Everett Collection.

<em>The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari</em>

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Because nothing says horror like a 1920 German Expressionist film. This classic about a murderous hypnotist is inspiring now for its groundbreaking cinematography and sheer artfulness, more of a gorgeous film noir than a real horror story.

From Everett Collection.

<em>Dracula</em>

Dracula

The original cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel is a must-see for film fans. It’s the mother of all vampire movies, featuring an indelible performance by Bela Lugosi and some really lush cinematography. (This scene alone of Dracula’s wives awakening is a thing of pure beauty.) Plus, it’s from the 1930s—there’s no way it’ll scare you.

From Everett Collection.

<em>Psycho</em>

Psycho

Ah, yet another classic that all film fans should have in their back pocket. The seminal Alfred Hitchcock thriller shocked audiences in 1960 with its jarring shower scene and ultimate plot twist, but it won’t horrify modern viewers the same way. Hitchcock was more about suspense than jump scares, even if Pyscho still gives you a healthy bout of chills.

From Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

<em>Carrie</em>

Carrie

Speaking of old movies that aren’t scary-scary by modern standards, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of this Stephen King novel about a bullied high-school girl with a zealous mother is yet another standard-bearer that scared people at the time of its release. Now it’s got a sort of hokey 70s aesthetic that won’t spook viewers more accustomed to sophisticated special effects.

From United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

<em>Poltergeist</em>

Poltergeist

Like many horror movies of decades past, Poltergeist, too, isn’t as scary as it once. But it still has some solid scary moments—do yourself a favor and squeeze your eyes shut when Martin Casella grabs his face in the bathroom scene—so save it for when you’re at your bravest.

From MGM/Everett Collection.

<em>Gremlins</em>

Gremlins

The kitschy 1984 horror-comedy is basically about Furbies from hell. Though it’s geared toward a younger audience, there’s some violence that kicked it up to a PG-13 viewing—but it’s still, at the end of the day, a fun little movie about people fighting goofy puppets.

From Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys

At the heart of this vampire saga is an emo journey about two dorky teens (Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, the 80s dream duo) fending off a pack of too-cool vampires trying to turn one of their older brothers into a monster. There’s definitely some scary imagery throughout—mind tricks in which the head vampire (an ice-blond Kiefer Sutherland) turns rice into maggots, bloody feeding frenzies—but its youthful spirit, style, and comedy far outweighs the horror elements.

From Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

<strong>Silence of the Lambs</strong>

Silence of the Lambs

Silence is a perfect psychological thriller, a dive into the life of a green F.B.I. agent (Jodie Foster) who has to interview a captured cannibalistic serial murderer (Anthony Hopkins), then use that information to catch another killer on the loose. The Jonathan Demme classic is disturbing and suspenseful, but also so elegantly told that it won best picture at the 1992 Oscars. Certified wimps can totally handle this prestige project.

From Orion Pictures Corp/Everett Collection.

<em>Zombieland</em>

Zombieland

Speaking of zombie fare that’s more funny than scary, this 2009 adventure tale puts together a ragtag group of survivors in a world possessed by the walking dead. It’s like a spunky how-to guide for surviving a zombie apocalypse. And to prove its comedic lean, director Ruben Fleischer tapped a very famous comedian to come in for a perfect cameo—which we won’t spoil for any newcomers.

From Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Shaun of the Dead</em>

Shaun of the Dead

Edgar Wright’s kooky 2004 horror-comedy takes the piss out of the zombie genre. Be slightly warned: there’s a lot of blood and braaaains and hideous violence, but it’s so smart and jokey that the dread is balanced out.

From Rogue Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Paranorman</em>

Paranorman

This stop-motion kids comedy is a joyful story about a boy who sees dead people. (For the scary version, go stream The Sixth Sense.) It’s more of a delightful coming-of-age tale with genuine laughs, and some spooky animated creatures for good measure.

From Focus Features/Everett Collection.

<em>What We Do in the Shadows</em>

What We Do in the Shadows

Much like Shaun, this 2014 mockumentary flips a genre on its head, poking fun at the wild and sexy lore of vampires. Written and directed by New Zealand’s finest, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also star, the film is about a trio of vampires just living everyday life—splitting house chores, trying to get invited into nightclubs—which takes a turn when they have to take in a new 20-year-old vampire.

From Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

<em>Get Out</em>

Get Out

Make no mistake: Jordan Peele’s excellent debut feature is a horror movie through and through, with highly unsettling twists and turns. But the horror doesn’t rely on twisted jump scares or unsightly violence; instead, it’s baked into the film’s brilliant social commentary on modern racism. And if that’s not enough, take it from another wimp—this is a horror hit you can candle.

From Universal/Everett Collection.

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