When The Blair Witch Project opened in the summer of 1999, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez got their $60,000 indie noticed by bleeding fiction into fact. Playing on viewers’ morbid curiosity, they listed their unknown actors as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb, handed out missing-persons flyers at film festivals, and featured fake police reports and staged interviews with investigators on the movie’s website. In keeping with that spirit of mischievous surprise, this year’s sequel, Blair Witch, wasn’t initially identified as such. A Comic-Con audience only discovered what they were watching when the lights went out.
With its documentary and found-footage formats, mid-Atlantic setting, Blair Witch–esque twig dolls, and, above all, its playfully coy advertising campaign (which declined to reveal the new season’s theme), the sixth iteration of American Horror Story (FX) attempted to launch something like the frenzied anticipation that surrounded that turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece. As with The Blair Witch Project, the marketing and the fan-fueled speculation proved as entertaining as the product itself — a guessing game as a prelude to the show.
Debuting last night, My Roanoke Nightmare (snaps for that deliciously cheesy subtitle) would feel like a pared-down rehash of Season 1’s Murder House if it weren’t for the questions raised by the faux-documentary structure. Minus the raining teeth, the haunting of Shelby and Matt — played by Lily Rabe and André Holland as the “real-life” couple this all happened to and Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the “actors” reenacting the events — lacks the lavish production design and baroque grotesquerie that’s made American Horror Story so compulsively watchable despite its consistently aimless plotting and coarse characterizations. At least its winking camp has survived Ryan Murphy’s promises of greater darkness this year. Angela Bassett’s ex-cop, Lee, annoyedly calling her sister-in-law “one jumpy bitch” was the highlight of the hour.
American Horror Story could just as well be called “Women Over 40 Doing Awful Things” — one of its best reasons to exist. And so the mutual resentment between Shelby and Lee (played by Adina Porter as the talking-head version) is instantly more interesting than the marriage between the model couple. Since Matt looks like he’ll often be away doing vague work-related things, the developing relationship between the sisters-in-law holds much more promise, especially after Lee brings her technically kidnapped young daughter into the house, as promised by next week’s teaser. And though the likely theme of Season 6 — the Roanoke Colony, a group of about 115 English settlers that went missing in the 16th century — is a distant memory today, perhaps the series could make it feel relevant once more. The apparitions of the two women in mid-20th-century nursing garb suggests that Kathy Bates’s colonist isn’t the only poltergeist to contend with.
Most engaging, though, is whether American Horror Story can wring something new out of the tired mockumentary style. It feels too pat for Shelby, Lee, and Matt to all come out of their 18th-century farmhouse alive — surely there’s a twist lying in wait there. The show has also gleefully skipped across time to creepy and arch effect every season, so it’s possible that the doppelgängers are somehow significantly separated in years. Between the tensions among the trio and the potential resurrection of the documentary presentation, consider us teased and tempted back into the haunted house.