American Horror Story Hotel episode 1 review: Checking In

The wilfully disturbing American Horror Story: Hotel may not make much sense this early on, but boy, does it look stunning...

This review contains spoilers.

5.1 Checking In

With American Horror Story entering its fifth season, it’s more than fair to say that the show’s been wobbly for the last couple of seasons. After the kooky fun of Murder House and the insanity of Asylum, subsequent runs Coven and Freak Show were examples of the show trying to do too much, going too far, pushing too many boundaries in the name of shock rather in the name of some sort of central story. Yes, American Horror Story has always taken on a lot, usually more than it can chew, and discarded bits here and there along the way like a child bored with his toys, but at least there was some kind of core holding it all together.

That core isn’t quite visible in the first episode of American Horror Story: Hotel for the bulk of the extra-long episode’s running time. Instead, there’s just a long series of events pushed together in the same location. It’s a bit like an entire episode assembled out of various cold openings, plus some footage of Wes Bentley spliced in from his starring role in Se7en: The TV Series. At no point does it stop being weird or interesting or stomach-churning or some combination of all these things at once, but it also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s probably because it’s more about introducing every character and less about offering up some narrative for our approval. It’s a murderer’s row of Ryan Murphy favorites, plus gratuitous ass shots, gallons of blood, and every possible physical camera trick in the book.

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One good thing you can say about the show is that it’s as excessive in its cinematography as it is in its content. Every possible trick of lens, focus, and mechanical apparatus that you can do with a camera is done in the first episode, sometimes multiple things going on at once. It’s one of the show’s most pleasing aspects. There’s a mastery of camera trickery going on behind the lens, and it seems no familiar trick is missed when it comes to infusing every scene with some tension or clever creepiness. Even if you don’t know what’s going on—even if nothing’s going on—it’s going to look awesome (or suitably repulsive).

The show opens with a tracking shot of two pretty Swedish tourists checking into the, er, “vintage” Hotel Cortez. We get a very impressive crane shot of them going through the lobby, providing awesome depth of field and helping to establish the sheer immensity of the hotel lobby and its mezzanine bar area. It’s all Art Deco decorations, plush red velvet furniture, polished wood, vibrant neon, lamps that look like Devo’s pyramid hats turned upside down, and a general sense of faded grandiloquence from a bygone age crapped out into the middle of modern Los Angeles. The girls, finding their hotel not as close to the cool stuff as they would like, want a refund from hotel desk clerk Iris (Kathy Bates in giant glasses). No such luck, and the two hapless Europeans are checked into the hotel and given the key to their room. (There’s also a fish-eye lens shot of them getting into the elevator, as if there wasn’t enough going on.)

During a trip to get ice for their mini-bottles of booze, one of the interchangeable Swedes is distracted by the ice bucket and looming up from behind her is a scaly-looking gray hand that morphs (thanks to a gorgeous rack focus) into a glittery, talon-tipped… glove? That jump scare goes nowhere, and it’s not long before the girls notice a weird smell in their room. An examination of their lumpy mattress reveals a poorly-stitched seam, and a little additional bed surgery reveals a bald, shrieking, zombie-like man crawling out from inside their bed. All this takes place before we get the revamped, Ten Commandments-themed opening credits! And while these girls reappear later, they’re actually not as important as everyone around them.

Hotel doesn’t really waste time in pushing boundaries after we get the Swedish tourists sufficiently weirded out. Our very next scene is a disturbing tableaux of revenge being examined by Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley). It looks to be some sort of revenge scenario where a woman is impaled and killed and a man is mutilated and super-glued to the deceased in a very, ahem, intimate way. As if that wasn’t enough, later on there’s a scene of a heroin user, played by Max Greenfield, who gets violently raped by a drilldo in a scene that I can’t decide whether is supposed to be funny or horrifying. Later on, there’s a foursome that ends with two of the participants getting their throats cut that basically has two naked people (nothing more than man butt shown courtesy of Matt Bomer) and Lady Gaga in silver pasties and a thong. There are also multiple shots of people, usually Sarah Paulson’s Nancy Spungen-lookalike Hypodermic Sally, sticking needles into their arms, which is more unsettling to someone needle-phobic like me than any blood-spraying cut throat ever shown on television.

While Wes Bentley is engaging in family drama and tracking a serial killer, the Hotel is full of crazy shenanigans, some hopping around in time, The Countess (Lady Gaga) and Donovan (Matt Bomer) engaging in sensual shenanigans, lots of creepy children (both blood drinking and regular type), some sort of mysterious play room, and a New York City rich person named Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) who looks to buy the hotel and potentially evict all the weirdos, crazies, and Wes Bentleys who are moving in.

Clearly, there’s a LOT of stuff going on, and it’s all happening very quickly in bits and chunks that don’t make a whole lot of sense right now. However, I feel like, particularly based on the strength of the last twenty minutes or so, that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a stronger central story here, involving Wes Bentley and his search for the killer, his strained family life, and his missing son who lives in the hotel with Lady Gaga’s character and multiple other creepy children. As the connections are drawn between the characters, it gets easier to follow along with, even if it’s still a lot to try to condense into a limited reviewing word count.

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In a lot of ways, it reminds me of a more grotesque take on Murder House. A big cast of characters—including a returning Christine Estabrook as Marcy the realtor—a lot of violence or potential violence, but a stronger idea and significantly more homages to other horror properties than we’ve seen in awhile. The hotel looks a lot like The Shining, the quasi-vampires reminded me of The Hunger, there are some Dee Snider’s Strangeland traps, Sarah Paulson’s Sid and Nancy choker/hair/look… that’s just the tip of the reference iceberg. The mattress monster looks like the bald feature zombie from Night Of The Living Dead 1990. Wes Bentley’s character is clearly involved in some sort of Se7en/Zodiac investigation, and he seems to have some of the observation powers Will Graham from the late, lamented Hannibal. (Speaking of Hannibal, possibly cannibal children?)

So, as usual, there’s no shortage of things happening. Whether all the elements congeal into a plot like blood congealing on a lush carpet is another story. Still, it looks like it’s going to be interesting, if only to see just how much Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk can get away with on the televised object-sodomy front. 

Read Ron’s review of the American Horror Story: Freak Show finale, Curtain Call, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan is kind of surprised at what you can get away with on cable television versus network television. It’s a whole new world out there. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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