American Horror Story
Hotel: Season 5, Episode 1 - "Checking In"
Lady Gaga, Sara Paulson, Wes Bentley, Denis O'Hare, Chloe Sevigny
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm
US: 7 Oct 2015
The Call Is Coming From Inside the Hotel, and Other Stories We’ve Already Heard
There is a specific line from an episode of Friends that has stuck with me. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is talking to her sister, Jill (Reese Witherspoon), and trying to give her advice about her life. In a means to her own ends, Rachel tells her sister not to do too much at once, because hasn’t she heard of the girl who tried to do too much? “She died, Jill,” Rachel sadly reveals. While a 1990s sitcom might not have too much in common with Ryan Murphy’s ultra-violent hour-long dramas that revel in modern-day horror (complete with gleeful, bloody orgies), that line is the best summation of the fifth season premiere of American Horror Story. Murphy and his host of writers are the girl who tried to do much and inevitably, their characters will die.
Covering too many cliched scary-movie themes is not a new thing in the world of American Horror Story. Each season showcases a particular setting that allows various tropes to show up and drive the action. This season, that setting is a hotel, and besides the obvious nods at classic hotel spook stories like The Shining and retro Los Angeles horror lore (i.e., The Twilight Zone‘s “Tower of Terror” episode), there’s also a grand heaping of vampires, deranged gimps, and holier-than-thou serial killers. The end result is a confusing mishmash of somewhat familiar stories, desperately trying to work as a cohesive unit but still not hitting the right resonance with one another.
That being said, rather than crashing and burning in this Baz Luhrman mode of storytelling, we still get an experience that can only be described as lush. The camera angles, the decor, the costumes, and the bodies displayed before us are all for pure, luxurious voyeurism. American Horror Story brings morbid curiosities and extravagances together in a way that celebrates the gross, the upsetting, and the violent without making you feel guilty for enjoying any of these things.
The story begins with a fish-eye view of the lobby and two beautiful Swedish blondes checking into the Hotel Cortez. Already we assume the role of the observer by trapping the imminent danger in an aquarium, complete with two gorgeous Swedish fish to swim around in. The women are in Los Angeles on vacation and have ended up at this wreck of an art deco hotel. The crusty receptionist, Iris (Kathy Bates) refuses to refund the girls’ money when they wish to leave, forcing them to stay in the hotel. The old Hollywood grandeur-gone-to-seed atmosphere of the place goes over the tourists’ heads and, of course, we’re immediately informed that the hotel has no wi-fi and gets no cell service. Pretty good deal for those pesky murderers. The girls check in to room 64 where, by following their noses, they find their mattress has been stitched up. Cue the first, “Don’t go in there moment,” where they rip it apart and get scared witless by the bald, sightless, screaming…thing that emerges.
As it’s the premiere, the introductions go by swiftly. Wes Bentley plays John Lowe, a cop whose child mysteriously disappears at the fairgrounds one day; he and his wife, Alex (Chloe Sevigny), never quite got over that trauma. Any peace of mind they might be moving toward, however, is shattered when a serial killer starts sending John texts and hints about his latest victims, one of whom we see super-glued to his dead female partner with his eyes and his tongue ripped out. Judging by the commandments that flashed by during the opening credits, and the fact that the lovers were married but not to each other, it can be assumed that there a Sev7n-style killer on the loose, this time with three extra rules to enact. If that wasn’t bad enough, John and Alex’s child now resides in the hotel as part of an undead gang of blonde children who stay up all night and play video games all day. (Truly the Lost Boys of the 2010s.) To keep his family safe, John checks into the hotel where we’re introduced to the elusive owner: The Countess Elizabeth (Lady Gaga).
It’s unclear whether Lady Gaga can actually act, as all that is required of her here is to be a mad Donatella Versace-Bowie. (She’d hyphenate for sure.) Thus far, she’s perfect in this role as hotel owner/vampire-coven leader, because she’s basically playing herself. From her metal Alexander McQueen-meets-Morticia Addams’-Chinese-finger-trap talons to her alien lack of eyebrows, Lady Gaga plays the Countess as the perfect blank canvas onto which you can paint everyone’s ideal sexy and dangerous immortal. In blood red, of course.
She and her beautiful companion, Donovan (Matt Bomer)—who, incidentally, is Iris’s son)—take their time getting ready to attend a cemetery screening of Nosferatu, in a beautiful 1980s synth-goth Sisters of Mercy montage. They seduce a couple, take them back to the hotel, and in a beautifully shot orgy, slash their throats and gyrate in the waves of blood. It’s the most tastefully trashy soft-core porn you could watch, but it’s about as subtle as having Sarah Paulson’s Hypodermic Sally walk into the scene and start yelling, “I’m a vampire! We’re all vampires!” (She doesn’t, just to be clear, but Catherine Deneuve she is not.) In these The Hunger-inspired segments, it easy to question exactly how seriously this show is taking itself because for Satan’s sake, Gaga also happens to be a modern art dealer with appropriately mood-highlighting written word light installations conveniently hanging around the dungeon where our poor Swedish meatballs (Bates’ words, not mine) have ended up.
It’s all a big game of Clue, where Denis O’Hare plays Mrs. Peacock dressed as Liz Taylor dressed as Cleopatra, and although the unfolding story promises to be a ridiculous circus of melodrama and innards, I can’t help but wonder if any of the storylines can really be fully fleshed out in the face of the show’s constant weirdness for the sake of weirdness.