Oct. 09--American Horror Story: Coven: 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX.
"American Horror Story" goes to camp this year, and no one will get a peaceful night's sleep -- not just because of all the bloodcurdling screams, but because of a good bit of laughter as well.
The third edition of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's delicious miniseries, premiering Wednesday on FX, has some familiar elements for fans of the first two "AHS" installments -- Jessica Lange, for one, as well as other cast returnees Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Jamie Brewer, Denis O'Hare and Taissa Farmiga in new roles.
But it also has something new -- campy humor. Not that there wasn't a kind of black humor running through the previous seasons, but "American Horror Story: Coven" ramps the silliness up an enjoyable notch with a story set in a New Orleans school for young witches.
Oscar-winner Kathy Bates gets things off to a bloody good start in Wednesday's premiere, playing Delphine LaLaurie, a 19th century matriarch known for her singularly brutal treatment of slaves. She punishes one of her slaves for sleeping with her wayward daughter by chaining him up in her attic and outfitting him with a severed bull's head. As a child, she always loved hearing stories about classical mythology, especially the one about the minotaur.
"And now ah have mah very own," she hisses.
Here's a make-up tip modern ladies might want to avoid: Burdened by a flabby face? Try brushing your skin with fresh blood to tighten up those unsightly wrinkles.
Well, fiddle-dee-dee, the blood isn't fresh. No wonder it doesn't seem to be doing much good. "Just look at that wattle," she says, flapping the sac of skin beneath her chin.
Skip ahead to modern times and young Zoe Benson (Farmiga) is discovering she's different than other girls her age. That hemorrhaging boyfriend in her bed must have been a dead give-away, so to speak. But before she can really process the information, family members whisk her away to Miss Robichaux's School for Exceptional Young Ladies in New Orleans. Frances Conroy, wearing Flannery O'Connor cat-eye glasses and remarking on how much she admires the pattern of the drapes, is one of the "whiskers."
The school has been around for centuries, but under current headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Paulson), the syllabus is all about teaching young witches how to hide who they are and keep their powers in check. Zoe's classmates include Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious"), movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts, "We're the Millers") and Nan (Brewer, "American Horror Story: Murder House").
The school's educational goals don't sit well with the coven's Supreme -- a kind of super-witch who has more power than your average, run-of-the-mill witches. In this case, the Supreme is also Cordelia's mother, played by Lange, of course.
If you think Lange was over the top in previous "AHS" seasons, she goes for broke this time around and seems to be having as much fun doing it as we are watching it. The rest of the cast pulls out all the stops as well, including Bates and Angela Bassett ("What's Love Got to Do With It"), as Marie Laveau, a 19th century voodoo practitioner.
Comedy often plays a significant role in horror stories and film. It not only provides ironic counterpoint to horror, it can also be useful, as it is here, in keeping you off-guard until just the right moment for that big bloody gotcha. Delphine LaLaurie's personal torture chamber is grotesque and terrifying, but there's even more horror in store for viewers later in the pilot episode. And more laughs as well.
And what about Delphine LaLaurie and Marie Laveau? Well, as the saying goes, everything old is new again.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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