First and foremost, the American Horror Story anthology series as piloted by Ryan Murphy has always been a massive exercise in style over substance. Here, in the Hotel entry, the fifth in the anthology series, the centerpiece Hotel Cortez is certainly the most elaborate design and probably the finest piece of cohesive style Murphy has offered yet. With its Shining-inspired hallways filled with Shining-inspired children and lined with Shining-inspired carpets (there’s a theme there), the art deco hotel has an ominously empty and dead feeling, perfect for the series. It’s obvious a great deal of passion and attention went into the set design. The other aspects of the series are less well defined, requiring more evidence to gauge its ultimate success over the scattered pilot.
As written by Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the pilot, “Checking In,” is effectively a series of vignettes designed to establish threads of stories that will run through the season tied together by the refrains of The Eagle’s “Hotel California,” which rather obviously closes the episode. We are first introduced to the hotel through the eyes of Swedish tourists who run afoul of the hotel’s residents. Kathy Bates plays Iris, the front desk clerk. Sarah Paulson plays Sally, the local drug addict. Denis O’Hare plays Liz Taylor, the transgender (I think) handyman. The second series introduces Wes Bentley as John Lowe, a police detective investigating a series of gruesome mutilations, and his estranged wife Alex, played by Chloe Sevigny (bringing the emotional hard center). And then, finally, there are Lady Gaga as The Countess and Matt Bomer as Donovan (also Iris’s son) who are apparently vampires of some sort. There are tangents all over the place, but those are the core players from the pilot.
So what to make of all of this?
I literally have no idea.
My first impression is that the series has definitely eschewed the lighter, campier texture of Coven and Freak Show for the darker, more straightforward horror approach adopted in Murder House and Asylum. Personally, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction, particularly with Murphy’s Scream Queens camping it up over on Fox. One of my disappointments with the pilot is that Hotel isn’t particularly scary save a quick jump shock in the opening scenes. It also doesn’t really appear to generate any sense of dread of foreboding. Instead, it relies on heavier doses of gore and risqué sex scenes (Max Greenfield’s anal rape by pointy steel dildo feels like a harsh punishment for The New Girl) to convey the horror. It also seems to have blown its wad / spilled a few of its secrets directly in the pilot, which will not be revealed here for those who couldn’t watch in the dark tonight. And closing the pilot with “Hotel California” didn’t help either. Go look up the lyrics if you didn’t follow that one, although, if you did miss the reference, then you’re likely to find Hotel a fresh and original concept. Good for you.
Aside from the stunning set design, the actors all seem to be well suited to the characters they play with Paulson, Bates, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Sevigny predictably early frontrunners for Best in Show. However, I was surprised in the dedication and focus Wes Bentley brought to his performance. As an actor who never really seemed to fit in after his breakthrough American Beauty performance, Bentley has risen far above his Freak Show silliness with a real character that apparently has real emotions – a rarity in the Ryan Murphy horror universe. And what of Lady Gaga? The jury’s out on her simply based on the pilot. I can say this: she definitely wears clothes well, which is a good thing given that I don’t think she wears the same outfit twice in any given scene in the pilot. She apparently has more lines and a bigger presence in the rest of the series, but, again simply based on the pilot, her appearance is more of an entity than a character. Yes, she reads dialogue well enough, but the character already feels so larger than life that it will be difficult to determine whether or not Lady Gaga can actually act. Clearly, we’ve never had this problem with Jessica Lange. Although now I’m trying to imagine Lange in a 4-way with Matt Bomer and two random actors…
Ultimately, I’m definitely mixed on the pilot. I personally felt that Freak Show had a stronger beginning with more sheer terror around the Twisty the Clown character. But then again, it was saddled with random freak characters who were ultimately more archetypes than actual full-fledged human beings. Hotel has yet to define a “Twisty” for its run, yet, so there aren’t as many immediate scares. However, I can see Hotel delivering a stronger payout as the season continues where Freak Show and, in my opinion, Coven petered out at the end. I also have the sense that, given our collective fascination with the hypnotic oddball that is Lady Gaga, Hotel will never be boring or leave you wanting for more.
It just may not reach the heights Ryan Murphy intends.