‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ Review: Ryan Murphy at His Most Shocking, Lady Gaga at Her Most Gaga
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are the maestros of modern horror camp. Equipped with a surplus of fake blood and a fetish for violence, the two fashion each season of American Horror Story into a macabre exhibition of your deepest nightmares. Whether depicting real-life traumas of rape and murder, fantastical terrors of alien abductions and witchcraft, religious fears of demonic possessions, or phobias of clowns and reptiles, AHS manages to tap into every level of horror imaginable. But thanks to Murphy and Falchuk’s added dash of camp and glamour (most notably in recent seasons), the FX series continues to be one of the most disturbing and most enthralling on TV.
American Horror Story: Hotel, which premieres on Wednesday, turns the fear and shock factors up to maximum velocity. Season 5 is set in the titular Hotel Cortez, an ornate downtown Los Angeles hotel embellished with golden Art Deco architecture. But it’s the hotel’s hypnotic patterned carpeting – nothing less than a direct allusion to The Shining -- shadowy corners and vacant lobby that assure us the darkest of things can, and will, happen in the most beautiful of places.
The premiere episode, “Checking In,” which was provided in advance to press, opens with two blonde tourist girls arriving at the hotel only to be immediately disappointed. Turned off by its old fashioned aesthetic (as well as its distance from their main attraction, Universal Studios), they attempt to leave until Kathy Bates’ testy receptionist, Iris, convinces them to say. What ensues is the first of many creepy encounters that merely teases the heinous sequences to come – but don’t worry, they arrive pretty quickly.
First me meet Detective John Lowe, played by a refreshing Wes Bentley who’s far more deserving of a lead role then his three-episode cameo in Freak Show. John’s investigating a series of murders around the city, which eventually lead him to Hotel Cortez. Here, we’re introduced to the first batch of the season’s most eccentric characters. There’s AHS veterans Sarah Paulson as Sally, a junkie who frequents the hotel, and Denis O’Hare’s deliciously radiant drag queen Liz Taylor (undoubtedly the best part of the episode). There’s also newcomer Cheyenne Jackson as fashion designer Will Drake and his young son, Max Greenfield as glam rock junkie Gabriel, Chloe Sevigny in her most basic role yet as John’s wife Alex Lowe (but knowing Sevigny, there has to be some sort of oddity to Alex), Matt Bomber’s armpiece Donovan,a handful of adorably pale blonde children and of course, the woman everyone’s been waiting for: Lady Gaga.
It’s as if Stefani Germanotta’s Lady Gaga was conjured for the precise purpose of starring in American Horror Story. Everything about her jaw-dropping presence, sheer star power and always outrageous eccentricity makes her an ideal fit for the FX show. While she may not fill the void left by former AHS heroine Jessica Lange (who could?), she does bring a glistening, diva-centric magnetism to the lead female role. Murphy wants you to gasp every moment Gaga’s Countess appears on screen, whether it’s from her stunning attire or ghostly bleached eyebrows and pale skin, and it’s hard not to. But can she act? That remains to be seen, since Gaga does little more than play a heightened version of her own pop star persona. Gaga’s Countess plays like a caricature of Old Hollywood starlets, with her few lines of dialogue tinged with an uneven Transatlantic accent. She’s not great, but the less she says the more intriguing she becomes. After all, we don’t watch American Horror Story for great acting, we watch it for the characters, and Gaga is the most striking character in pop culture today.
On top of the Gaga selling point, Hotel also thrives on its heavy serving of rampant violence, showcasing more than any season premiere before it. Most of the gore comes courtesy of Det. Lowe’s murder case, which shamelessly mirrors the grisly murders of Se7en. But as grotesque as David Fincher’s 1995 thriller may be, Hotel takes the horror even further when it comes to the hotel itself. Without giving too much away, we’ll reveal that a jewel-encrusted drill-bit dildo makes an appearance in one of the most brutal moments of the entire series (as Murphy promised). There’s also a good amount of disemboweling, throat slitting and blood-soaked hotel sheets. Murphy is clearly operating at his most horrific level here, and reveals that he’s far from exhausted his playbook of nightmarish scenarios. But is that enough to keep the fifth installment of a 13-episode season going?
At its core, AHS is an anthology series jam-packed with excessive torture porn and GIF-able moments, and in latter seasons, one where narrative is secondary, sometimes even tertiary, to thrills and gimmicks. While the first season had the most dedication to unraveling the plot, and Asylum was the strongest character study, the series slowly lost focus over the following two seasons. Coven cherished pop culture references and quippy dialogue over logical storytelling (the excuse of magic helped), while Freak Show was mostly flamboyant spectacle.
The beauty of Murphy & Falchuk’s show is how it turns the most disturbing fears into fuel for thrilling television. The downfall, though, is when the fun begins spiraling out of control. Its visually rich aesthetics (this season is obsessed with neon sign art, as the opening credits show) are ready-made for Tumblr reblogging, while its sensationalized scenes are practically written to go viral the next morning. Hotel embodies all of that and its startling moments are each worthy of internet chatter. Yet the premiere suffers from establishing enough of a substantial, unique storyline, and one that could easily end up mimicking Murder House. While Hotel could turn into nothing more than vignettes of ornamented violence, there's the hope Murphy will keep it afloat with a tighter narrative. But when all else fails, it will still make you scream in horror as much as it will make you shout “Yass!” in praise of its ostentatiousness.
For viewers looking for cohesive storytelling, Hotel may disappoint. But if you can set that aside to enjoy a blood-splattered Gaga and a music video-stylized foursome, keep watching. American Horror Story fans will no doubt enjoy Hotel, which may turn out to be the most elaborate and entertaining season yet.
American Horror Story: Hotel premieres on FX on Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. ET. Warning: you may not want to sleep on a mattress afterwards.