It’s gut check time. As “American Horror Story” prepares to disgorge its second heaving helping of nightmare imagery onto the national drive-in screen, you need to ask yourself just how much darkness you’re willing to abide.
Because Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the creators of this white-knuckle ride, aren’t backing down.
FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” may run at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, but it should really be on at 3 a.m., when only shell-shocked insomniacs could see it.
The first season centered on a fragmenting family living in a Los Angeles house with a string of tragic incidents and an active cadre of malevolent ghosts.
This time around, you get the same nasty violence, kinky sex, and disturbing costuming and makeup, but the second season is so much sicker, right from its architectural foundation.
The Asylum of the title is Briarcliff, a massive former tuberculosis ward that became a sanitarium for the criminally insane run by the Catholic clergy in the early 1960s.
We know all this history because in the debut, a pair of horny newlyweds played by Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, have devoted their honeymoon to having sex in the 12 most haunted places in America, including the now presumably abandoned Briarcliff.
Most of the action takes place in 1964, when this howling bedlam was ruled over with a very stiff whipping crop by Sister Jude (a ferocious Jessica Lange).
Lange is one of last year’s troupe to return in a new role, trading in her Southern whisper for a Narragansett Bay clam-digger’s bark. “American Horror Story” has made the distinction that it is an anthology, not a series. Zachary Quinto and Evan Peters have also signed on for a second tour as different characters.
New to this danse macabre are a chilling James Cromwell as a mad scientist conducting his own experiments on the patients, Joseph Fiennes as the repressed monsignor who makes Sister Jude think impure thoughts, Sarah Paulson as a reporter who becomes an unwilling patient, and Chloe Sevigny as an irrepressible nymphomaniac.
That diagnosis doesn’t cut it with Sister Jude, who believes “mental illness is a fashionable explanation for sin.”
Other new cast members not in the first episodes include Ian McShane, Franka Potente, and Mark Consuelos.
There are a number of evocative ’60s details used here, including the cars and the music, like Dusty Springfield’s sharply enunciated “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and the Singing Nun (nice touch, that) trilling “Dominique.”
But this reincarnation of 1964 isn’t Camelot; it’s Rancelot, full of degradation and depravity. All of the “American Horror Story” scare tactics are back, along with the added unsettling elements of Catholic religion at its most imperious and the helplessness of patients in restraints, being treated against their wills.