In a season when the agendas of fashion are finally being rewritten, all a professional audience really comes to Paris for is to witness brilliant designers working on modern cut for twenty-first-century life—and to inspect it in close-up. Even on a Friday night, in rain and heavy weekend traffic, they will drag themselves to an inhospitable sports venue at the ends of the Périphérique to see an Alexander McQueen show with just those expectations. Unfortunately, the audience was confronted with a distracting, overwrought show that only succeeded in ramming home the realization that the theatrics and stadium-sized presentations of the nineties are—or rather should be—a thing of the past.

To be fair, McQueen had put a heartfelt personal passion into a collection that was based on a startling revelation from his family history. His mother, who traces family trees, discovered that her bloodline leads back to a victim of the Salem witch trials who was hanged in the Puritan hysteria of 1692. The themes of witchcraft, paganism, and religious persecution played on the dark and angry side of McQueen's creativity, but the way he articulated them ultimately ended in one of the season's most deleterious cases of concept overwhelming clothes.

First of all, there was a pentagram traced in red in a black-sand circle, with an inverted pyramid hanging over it. As the show started, a macabre film—of naked women, swarming locusts, faces decaying to skulls, and blood and fire—started to play above the models' heads. Theoretically, no one objects to being disturbed and discomforted by a pointed McQueen performance—it's an accepted part of his identity. What they did object to was that the point was lost in the distractions, and what interesting clothes did emerge could barely be appreciated at the distance he put between models and audience.

The clothes were there, as far as it was possible to see. The opening of the show proved McQueen is thinking about new shape, in this case pod-like structures that broke the mold of his usual corseted silhouette. The volumes, shown over black leather leggings, moved toward a curved-back, forward-facing shape that put him somewhere in line with other experiments that are going on in Paris. McQueen's research on religion had found links between ancient Egypt and the folk culture of the earliest British immigrants to the New World, so there were Nefertiti hairdos and couture-detailed clothes fashioned to mimic the lapis lazuli and gold of sarcophagi. One blue dyed fur was shaved and shaded like overlapping feathers, and a gilded column and green jersey gown with coiled snakes at the breast looked fit for Elizabeth Taylor starring as Cleopatra.

After that, though, it swiftly became a bumpy and difficult ride. Quieter pieces like a cardigan dress, a nipped-waist parka, and a shearling skirt (core items that sell so well for McQueen) got drowned by the gore flowing on the screens. At the end, there were some of the gowns he is so good at—a trail of emerald velvet with copper bugle-beaded strands of hair spilling to the waist, and a chic black silver-beaded gown that rippled from the shoulder line as it moved. Still, even those didn't have the power to fill the space or to placate an audience driven to the end of its tolerance by an experience that—journey and waiting-in-the-dark time included—took four hours. McQueen is too talented to get stuck in an outdated habit of presentation like this.