'American Horror Story: Asylum' recap: Christmas terrors in 'Unholy Night'

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ian-mcshane-american-horror-story-asylum-unholy-night-fx.jpgHoliday episodes are usually a great chance for TV shows to go all warm and fuzzy, but not "American Horror Story: Asylum." Unless you consider a killer Santa Claus, an evil nun and a duplicitous Nazi great examples of Christmas cheer.

Throw in the alien abduction of a corpse and a serial killer's surviving victim vowing to "bury" him and you've got one endlessly twisted hour of TV. The really sick thing: most of it was a lot of fun.

At least it was once we got past that overly appalling opening sequence. Ian McShane's guest turn as one of Briarcliff's permanently locked-away psychopaths was truly inspired, but the early scenes of his criminal past -- conversing with a little girl in his Santa outfit, tying up her parents and psychologically torturing then murdering them -- represented one of those unfortunate times when "AHS" confuses grisly true crime scenarios for genuinely chilling horror.

The double murder and dialogue that preceded it wasn't creepy, it was just repugnant. Like the first series' school shootings and nurse murders, the killer Santa sequence indulged far too much in pain and misery (of characters we don't even know) and came dangerously close to actual torture porn. (When you're creating porn for people who love torture, it's probably time to step back and rethink the approach.)

Fortunately things picked up from there, as "Unholy Night" stayed all kinds of deviant without getting off on suffering.

lily-rabe-american-horror-story-asylum-unholy-night-fx.jpgThis was one hell of an episode for Lily Rabe (who once again proved why she's one of Zap2it's picks for Most Underrated TV Stars of 2012), as Sister Mary Eunice took complete control of Briarcliff. She released McShane's Killer Santa back into the general population after Sister Jude ( Jessica Lange) had him exiled in solitary, and didn't stop there. Mary Eunice (or, more specifically, the demon inside her) went wild: trimming the common room tree with dentures and locks of hair from the patients, offing that goody goody security guard Frank ( Fredric Lehne) by slicing open his neck, and setting up Sister Jude for a showdown with Santa thanks to an assist from the truly devious Dr. Arden ( James Cromwell).

Arden successfully convinced Jude he was worried about Mary Eunice and lured Jude back to Briarcliff to help, only to turn the tables and lock Jude in her former office with Santa. That gave us one hell of a confrontation between McShane and Lange -- two brilliant actors in peak form doing the crazy stuff that "AHS" does best. He whipped her with canes. She stabbed him with a letter opener. Happy holidays, indeed!

Other highlights:

- Grace ( Lizzie Brochere) is definitely dead. At least for now. But her corpse was abducted by the aliens while Arden was trying to wheel her out of Briarcliff. So now Arden knows about the aliens too, and the aliens have Grace's body. Where the heck is this subplot heading?

- Lana ( Sarah Paulson) managed to turn the tables on Thredson ( Zachary Quinto). After he tracked her down at Briarcliff and threatened: "Your skin will be the start of a whole new Bloody Face!" Kit ( Evan Peters) burst in to save the day and smash the psycho on the head. Lana (wisely) wanted to finish Thredson off. But Kit needs him alive to help prove his own innocence. So they resolve to keep him hostage. "One day I'll bury you," Lana tells Thredson. We can't wait for her to make good on that promise.

- What is Sister Jude talking about when she laments, "This country's turn toward unadulterated blasphemy frightens me terribly"? Why NBC's broadcast of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," of course! If only she knew what goes on on FX...
Photo/Video credit: FX