American Horror Story recap: Cinema No Paradiso

Devil-possessed Sister Mary turns Sister Jude's movie night into a bloody black mass in 'Nor'easter'
Ep. 03 | Aired Oct 31, 2012

What Evil Lurks In The Hearts Of Men? Only Sister Mary (Lily Rabe) knows. AND THE DEVIL INSIDE HER.

Byron Cohen/FX

Down in the bakery, Shelley and Grace work the ovens and roll the dough for their cane-wielding captor-commandants. Earlier in the episode, Shelley overheard Kit and Grace plotting another escape plan. Now, she corners Grace and asks to join. But Grace has no grace for Shelley. Why should she care about her freedom, anyway? She’s just going to waste it on “screwing more guys.” Shelley gets haughty. “Did you think as a little girl I thought I would spent my life wasting away in the bug house?! I want to go to Paris. France! They’re 20 years ahead of us! Here I am a freak! There I would be celebrated! Didn't you ever read Delta of Venus!? Anais Nin embraced her sexuality, without apology! You’re from France! You must know what I’m talking about.” But Grace says she only lived in France until she was nine, and she leaves Shelley to dangle. And so the slow-moving mystery of Shelley’s identity inches forward…

Anais Nin is a provocative reference. Shelley is correct in her characterization – Nin challenged sexual taboos and wrote powerfully, uniquely about Feminist concerns – although I’m not sure if Shelley makes for the best Nin acolyte. (But then, disciples rarely flatter their masters. Or mistresses.) But there’s another story from Nin’s life that intersects with this episode, and it didn’t occur in France. It happened in Hollywood, in the wake of a famed masquerade party built around the theme “Come As Your Madness.” Nin showed up, looking a lot like this. Among the guests was one Kenneth Anger, an avant garde filmmaker and author of a notorious, suppressed book of celebrity gossip called Hollywood Babylon. Anger is also famous for many other things, like being a provocateur with a furious antipathy toward mainstream culture. Oh, something of a Satanist, too. Specifically, a Thelema believer. The story goes that “Come As Your Madness” party was among the inspirations for Anger’s 1961 short film Inaguration of the Pleasure Dome. It’s a surreal, symbolic work, depicting an "occult Eucharist” awash with Jungian shadow creatures, pagan deities (Astarte, Isis, Lilith, The Scarlet Woman) and imbibing consciousness-altering substances, Anais Nin in her “Come As Your Madness” costume, and an apocalyptic orgy that unleashes a new age of (Satanic) liberation… or fiery armageddon. Not sure. One of the most fascinating things about Anger is his belief that cinema is basically… well, Satanic. From a bio, posted on Anger's website: "Offering a description of himself for the program of a 1966 screening, Kenneth Anger stated his 'lifework' as being Magick and his 'magical weapon' the cinematograph. A follower of Aleister Crowley's teachings, Anger is a high level practitioner of occult magic who regards the projection of his films as ceremonies capable of invoking spiritual forces. Cinema, he claims, is an evil force. Its point is to exert control over people and events and his filmmaking is carried out with precisely that intention."

Does any of this have anything to do with American Horror Story: Asylum? Better question: SHOULD IT?! But at least now you know why these recaps post so late.

It’s right about the time that the Nor’easter/extraterrestrial maelstrom reaches Briarcliff that Sister Judge begins to unravel. She’s watching the fireworks out her window when the phone rings. It’s a voice from the past. It's The Innocent. “You left me there. … You never even bothered to get out of the car.” Sister Jude stops fighting and surrenders to the judgment, at least for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she says. And the line goes dead. Where did this phone call come from? Did it all take place in her tortured mind? Was it a Sister Mary trick? Or is it possible another force altogether is meddling with Sister Jude, like, say... alien-angels? The battle for Sister Jude's soul could very well be a two-front war, maybe more.

Sister Jude sees a pair of glasses on the desk. It's the girl’s glasses. Cracked. And with that, Sister Jude cracks. She slumps, defeated. Without looking, as if operating on instinct, she reaches for the bottle of wine. She imbibes. All of it. Until she’s blurry-eyed drunk. Her head full of spirits – her consciousness altered – Sister Jude descends the stairway to heaven to the common room rowdy with crazies of all stripes – a proverbial "Come As Your Madness" masquerade, except the inanity is painfully, no-joke legit. The lady nursing the toy baby? Creepy.

Sister Mary blows her whistle. And movie night begins.

She starts with an invocation – a blessing for the pleasure dome. She makes it sound like something grand is at stake, something like a reformation or cultural revolution. “Welcome one and all to Briarcliff Manor’s inaugural movie night,” says Sister Judy. “Whether this evening marks the beginning of a beloved tradition, or just another bitter disappointment, is entirely up to you.”

Sister Jude reads the rest of her introduction from notes, although she ad libs a potshot at the end. “Now settle in, relax and return with me to ancient Rome, as we present the 1932 Ceil B. Demille classic The Sign of The Cross, starring Ms. Claudette Colbert  as the Empress…” -- she struggles to properly say “Poppaea,” make it sound “Propia” -- and as the Emperor Nero, the incomparable Mr. Charles Laughton… who, I understand, is an enormous whoopsie.” Sounds like someone’s been reading too much Hollywood Babylon.

It’s at this moment that we get a violent crack of thunder and lightening, as Sister Jude’s Laughton-bashing was offensive to Heaven itself. The inmates squirm. “Don’t be afraid of the dark!” Sister Jude commands, then tries to comfort them further with the saddest rendition “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ever drunk-warbled. The tune comes Carousel, a musical about a dead man who earns his way into Heaven by returning to Earth and minster to his lonely, bitter daughter. As Sister Jude gets to “you’ll never walk alone,” she remembers the lonely, bitter girl who haunts her like a ghost, trying to goose her toward redemption. Sister Jude stops singing, and breaks into a stream-of-conscious ramble, empathizing with The Innocent’s perspective. “But she was all alone… dying…” She says more (I couldn’t hear it, for technical reasons), then regains composure. “Lights!” she commands, and the common room goes dim. She leaves the Common Room to hunt The Mexican, who has gone mysteriously missing, and Sister Mary scoots to the front row to better enjoy the black and white mass of camp sensationalism about to unspool.

NEXT: Film Studies

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