A man and a leather mask watches another man walking through the park at dark
Image Credit: ‘AHS: NYC,’ FX/Hulu

The sounds of Willy DeVille’s “In the Heat of the Moment” rev up as the color palette turns from warm and golden to chilly blue. The camera tracks the transformation of a handsome, though nondescript, pilot into a nighthawk, roaming the streets, leather hugging his body, mirror shades another shield from his true identity.

He makes his way to the docks, where other men donning much the same kind of gear are barely illuminated by the light of the evening or a metal Zippo, their bodies plunged into the ecstasy of darkness. He’s there to cruise, to lose himself. He will. But, perhaps ironically, American Horror Story: NYC, which opens its pilot in this fashion, never does.

AHS: NYC, the eleventh season of Ryan Murphy‘s horror anthology, which concluded last month, never tries to hide its influences, much like the seasons before it.

For those in the know, all this day for night cool color, the chaps and leather bars, and the rumbling rock music making the clandestine meetings all the more dangerous and jagged might be familiar. The investigation into a series of savage murders within this particular gay millieu might also feature a sting of recognition. Because, behind the glasses, AHS: NYC pulls from one of queer cinema history’s more controversial entries, the William Friedkin-directed slasher/noir Cruising.

Related: Step inside New York’s legendary Mafia-owned leather bar The Mineshaft

Released in 1980 and starring Al Pacino as cop who goes undercover in the New York BDSM leather scene to track down a killer of gays, the film, which incited protests during production and its release, became notorious for its graphic scenes and its depiction of a side of gay culture that was often hidden from straight eyes. But the significance of Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk’s impulse to channel this much maligned film speaks to Murphy’s role in the industry and the broader shape of queer representation has and has not changed in the forty years since the original release of Cruising.

Side-by-side comparison: Al Pacino in 'Cruising' and Russell Tovey 'AHS: NYC
left: ‘Cruising,’ Arrow Video | right: ‘AHS: NYC,’ FX/Hulu

The protests, organized by gay activist groups and chronicled in the Village Voice, surrounding Cruising the summer of its filming in 1979 got so bad that locations fell through and sound was ruined, such that scenes in the film feature obvious ADR (additional dialogue recording), which served as both a logistical fix as well as an atmospheric and thematic addition.

Cruising would receive mixed reviews and languish as an example of questionable representation made by straight people. It’s only been in recent years that the film has received critical reevaluation, not merely as an object that defaces the respectability of gay people, but as an time capsule of pre-AIDS New York, a complicated noir about the trap of masculinity, and a thriller about the police state and its ongoing indifference towards marginalized communities. 

AHS: NYC orbits several ideas that Cruising dove into, its attention paid primarily to characters like Patrick, a closeted NYPD detective (Russell Tovey); Gino, a passionate New York Native reporter (Joe Mantello, doing Ned Weeks from The Normal Heart drag); Adam, a guy whose roommate goes missing and who teams up with Gino when the police are no help (Charlie Carver, who also wrote a few episodes this season); and Theo, a faux-Mapplethorpe-esque photographer (Isaac Cole Powell) who’s kept by the wealthy and sadistic art dealer Sam (Zachary Quinto).

A killer is on the loose, or maybe more than one: there’s the Mai Tai Killer, whose calling card is a last-call cocktail; and then Big Daddy, a hulking leatherman with a gimp mask who stalks his victims. And when the series makes its inevitable time jump towards the end of the season, there’s also AIDS itself.

Related: It turns out the actor behind AHS’s mysterious ‘Big Daddy’ mask is quite the big daddy

AHS: NYC’s relationship to Cruising is curious in the way that it functions as multiple things: a reply, an update, and a cosmetic moodboard. It would be asking too much of Murphy to be incisive about any of the things the show, or the film, is fixated on, and AHS has seldom ever pretended to be more than what it is: trashy, salacious, vulgar amusement. But, aside from AHS: Cult, which spun the Trump election as fodder for its show, AHS does not aspire to profundity until now.

Which is not to say that something can’t be campy fun and also deal with complicated subject matter simultaneously, resulting in a complex and erudite work (see: John Greyson’s musical Zero Patience, Tony Kushner’s seminal Angels in America, and Stephen Winter’s activism satire Chocolate Babies), but such work requires a level of rigor and precision that AHS and Murphy has seldom been equipped with.

If one of Cruising’s hallmarks is as a film that anticipates the AIDS epidemic in startlingly visceral ways, with all the sociopolitical ripple effects that would take place (violence, institutional apathy, etc.), AHS: NYC spells out a lot of that subtext for a new generation, but triples down on it in bewildering ways. There is the serial killer, the leather monster as AIDS metaphor, and then literally AIDS. While the division between the serial killer and the AIDS metaphor does inspire a few episodes’ worth of attention to the duty of alt and LGBTQ community focused publications, the narrative and contextual ramifications remain much the same without necessarily any more insight.

left: ‘Cruising,’ Arrow Video | right: ‘AHS: NYC,’ FX/Hulu

Yet the strangest component of AHS: NYC is that, while it cheekily recreates shot for shot certain scenes from Cruising, it doesn’t really translate the sexual politics, which were perhaps the most lambasted aspect of the Friedkin film. Across Ryan Murphy’s career, from AHS to The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and even The Politician and Dahmer, sex spells danger. If Murphy’s politics are inextricably tied with the AIDS crisis and September 11th, 2001, AHS: NYC feels like a culmination of the desire to make sex sexy and dangerous, yet not necessarily pleasurable.

Related: Relive the erotic 1980 thriller ‘Cruising’ with this fun new children’s playset!

Cruising was heavily criticized for demonizing BDSM and leather culture, especially at a time when LGBTQ already faced heavy anti-queer violence, and in AHS: NYC not much has changed. Though the season makes its case about institutionally sanctioned violence, the show gets stuck in trying to delineate between the violence that happens as part of the narrative and the pathologization of the sexual cultures that the show necessarily takes place in.

In the first half of the finale, Quinto is found deep in the delirium of a Christmas Carol-like hallucination on his deathbed, locked in an animal cage. He is forced by Denis O’Hare, dressed in chaps and brandishing sex toys at Quinto, to watch a past version of himself whip a twink strapped to a slab. “Judge all you want; gives a lot of people pleasure. You wouldn’t understand,” Quinto snarls. O’Hare shoots back, “No, I wouldn’t understand such grotesque extremes. It’s people like you who make the world hate people like me.” He continues, during the spectacle, “You inflict pain because you are in pain.” Gag. Save me your Velvet Rage Wiki entry, thanks.

The Friedkin film is imperfect, though one could argue somewhat misunderstood. Its flaws are easily traced to its occasionally limited vision of outsiders delving into a world they’re not privy to and the temperature of the late 1970s, like its lazy daddy issues arc. But that was forty years ago. AHS: NYC, for all its goals of reworking Cruising for a hot, new, with-it audience inexplicably repeats the same mistakes, but from the inside.

If representations of BDSM and leather culture are emerging from their previously fringe cultural location, in things like Netflix’s Bonding, Showtime’s Billions, and, yes, Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s surprising that, even in its rear view mirror point of view, AHS: NYC still feels nearly as simplistic as something from the 1980s.

Whereas Cruising can function as a challenging work about spectatorship, complicity, police brutality, fascism, and identity, AHS: NYC’s identity is fixed, strapped in, still living in the past and unable to confront the present.

Side-by-side comparison: Al Pacino in 'Cruising' and Russell Tovey 'AHS: NYC
left: ‘Cruising,’ Arrow Video | right: ‘AHS: NYC,’ FX/Hulu

The entire season of American Horror Story: NYC is streaming now on Hulu. Cruising is streaming now via Cinemax, and is available for digital rental via Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV, GooglePlay, and YouTubeTV.

Related: Moving Beyond the ‘Bury Your Gays’ Trope: Reclaiming Queerness in Horror Films

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