Last Wednesday, creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy checked us into the fifth season of their anthology horror series, American Horror Story, with a gore-packed hour-long premiere. The episode, aptly titled “Checking In,” introduces us to this season’s setting of The Cortez Hotel and an assortment of bizarre and fascinating key players. Like the previous installments of American Horror Story, the fifth season (subtitled Hotel) tells a new, self-contained story with many familiar faces stepping into fresh characters. Falchuk and Murphy have hinted that American Horror Story: Hotel will be the season that ties American Horror Story’s previous story arcs together at last into one cohesive (and undoubtedly messed up) narrative through the use of flashbacks and crossover characters. Whether it does indeed all come together or not remains to be seen, but Hotel’s return to the present day Los Angeles from season one’s Murder House storyline certainly bodes well for fans looking for closure. As a fan looking mostly for fun, the episode's gorgeous setting and wild performances bode well for me too.
Each season of American Horror Story opens with a couple of disposable characters acting as lambs being led to slaughter and Hotel is no exception. This year, it’s Swedish tourists Vendela (Kamilla Alnes) and Agnetha (Helena Mattsson) who arrive at The Cortez to discover firstly that the hotel is not what they expected when they booked online, and secondly that The Cortez doesn’t offer refunds. The girls spend the night anyway at the urging of curmudgeonly receptionist Iris (Kathy Bates) when they probably should have just eaten the cost and found a Holiday Inn. Upon arriving in their room, they’re greeted by a series of horrors, including (but not limited to) a corpse sewn into their mattress, spooky Goth children, carpets straight out of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, abduction, assault, bad lighting, and worst of all, no wifi. As the episode progresses, it becomes apparent that their experience is pretty standard for guests of The Cortez. If only Agnetha could have posted the terrible Yelp review she threatens to write, this season’s impending bloodbath could have all been avoided – but what fun would that be?
The Cortez itself is a stunning set piece. Realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook, our first recurring character from season one’s Murder House) describes it as a “time capsule” and although Iris alludes to a remodel at some point in the hotel’s history, the building seems pretty firmly entrenched in 1930s Art Deco. Everything from door numbers to banisters is reflective of the period and a delight to take in for fans of Deco design. In fact, my only complaint is that The Cortez might be a little too beautiful. Only the dim lighting and charmingly trashy modern touches (my personal favourite: a fluorescent sign that says “Why are we not having sex right now?”) suggest that The Cortez is as dilapidated as Vendela and Agnetha perceive it to be in the first act.
|Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor, in American Horror Story: Hotel.|
One of my favourite features of American Horror Story is the recurring cast and watching how they transform from one season to the next. Most of the regulars have returned for Hotel, with the lamentable exception of Jessica Lange who took the year off to perform on Broadway. Lange has been more or less replaced this season by Lady Gaga, she of pop music and meat dress fame, who plays The Cortez’s matriarch (and possible vampire), The Countess. Gaga surprisingly holds her own in the role, and while the nature of her character is so far unclear, Hotel is playing with common conventions of vampire stories to suggest that the blood play happening at The Cortez is essential for some of its inhabitants. When The Countess and her lover Donovan (Matt Bomer) arrive, dressed to the nines, to an outdoor screening of Nosferatu and wordlessly seduce the young couple next to them (Chasty Ballesteros and Nate Peterson) into coming back to The Cortez for a totally gratuitous foursome, did they use some sort of supernatural vampire “glamouring” (à la True Blood) or are they just really charming? The pair definitely drink blood and are suspiciously young and attractive (Donovan, in particular, doesn’t seem to have aged since the flashback sequence in 1994 when he appears to die of an overdose). On the other hand, neither Donovan nor The Countess have fangs – both rely on clawed gloves as murder weapons – and when Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) accidentally opens the curtains and exposes a sleeping, naked Donovan to sunlight, Donovan is profoundly annoyed, maybe, but hardly reduced to ashes. Furthermore, Buffy’s Angel couldn’t even eat ice cream: can vampires actually do cocaine? While the “are they or aren’t they” game American Horror Story: Hotel is playing with the audience is endlessly amusing, my pet theory is that Gaga’s character is based off of Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th century Hungarian Countess famed for bathing in the blood of young girls. If the glowstick-embellished torture cages Vendela and Agnetha find themselves in in this episode aren’t enough to persuade you, check out IMDB’s listing for the character’s alternate names: “Elizabeth/The Countess Elizabeth.”
The rest of the cast, of course, is on point as ever. American Horror Story’s recurring stars are so flexible and this season really highlights that. Sarah Paulson, after playing the relatable, every(wo)man characters in Coven and Asylum, followed by the doe-eyed Tattler twins in Freakshow, finally gets to walk on the wild side as resident hot mess Hypodermic Sally, a junkie, murderer, and possible ghost with some serious self-esteem issues. Denis O’Hare is also back, playing my absolute favourite character: a bald drag queen who goes by the name of Liz Taylor. Wes Bentley (American Beauty) takes on a lead role this season as the Detective John Lowe, after briefly appearing in Freakshow as Edward Mordrake, the tortured musician with a demon face on the back of his head. John and wife Alex (Chloë Sevigny) so far, are the characters that have the lion’s share of my interest this season, emerging as rare, normal figures in a sea of the larger-than life characters American Horror Story is known for. The Lowes lost a child five years ago under mysterious circumstances, and live in a real house, where they have real problems, away from the incredible circus-like ambiance of The Cortez. The unusual hyper-realism their story arc brings to “Checked In” reminds me a little bit of True Detective and keeps Hotel, so far, with one foot grounded in reality. I’m excited to see what The Cortez does to these poor, likeable people and, as a sidenote, the fact that Falchuk and Murphy can still do realism at all after their five-year love affair with the macabre hints at great promise for their upcoming spin-off series, American Crime Story.
So many other things about the premiere were wonderful (listen haters:“Hotel California” was the perfect song to end on), but going forward, I have a couple concerns. There was a lot of fisheye lens used in this episode. In fact, it was used so frequently that I was beginning to think something was wrong with my TV. Things at The Cortez are already weird enough – we don’t need weird lenses to remind us. More importantly, however, I think we all need to reach a consensus on gore and shock value. I love gore, don’t get me wrong, and I’m both surprised and impressed that “Checking In” got away with some of the things it showed on camera last Wednesday. That said, the scene where adorable Max Greenfield (virtually unrecognizable as scummy junkie, Gabriel) gets raped by a faceless skin monster with a drillbit strap-on struck me as unnecessary, both in terms of the content and the sheer length of the scene (... and drillbit). I was disturbed, but probably not in the way Falchuk or Murphy intended. In a show titled American Horror Story, I expect a certain degree of violence but I also expect it to be relevant. The “drilldo” encounter struck me as something Falchuk and Murphy threw in purely for shock value. Did Gabriel’s punishment fit his crime? Was there something about being a vaguely douchey drug addict that called for violent, torturous, drawn-out sodomy with a weapon? Some fans have conjectured that the event was an hallucination because there “wasn’t enough blood.” Others have defended the scene, saying it’s a horror series and that violent, gratuitous scenes are par for the course. Neither answer really satisfies me, honestly, because at the end of the day, I don’t agree with using rape as entertainment. For now, though, in light of all the other promising things “Checking In” brought to the table, I’m giving American Horror Story: Hotel a free pass on this one, just this once, and expecting that they’ll make it up to us ASAP.