American Horror Story Hotel episode 2 review: Chutes And Ladders

American Horror Story is finally living up to the horror in its title once again with the bloody and uber-stylish Hotel...

This review contains spoilers.

5.2 Chutes And Ladders

If you just looked at the name of this show, you’d expect something, well, horrifying. Murder House definitely had its moments, and Asylum might have been the most unsettling series of the show, but American Horror Story hasn’t been particularly horrifying the last few seasons. Sure, they both had their moments—the Freaks recreation from last season, Twisty’s whole everything, some of Dandy’s moments, the rape Minotaur… but lately, the gore and grotesquerie has been as comical as it has been horrifying. The zombie chainsaw attack from Coven, anyone?

We’re only two episodes into American Horror Story: Hotel, but it already seems like the show is going to aim more to be horrifying than horribly campy. Not that it’s not campy, and not that it’s completely abandoned its sense of humour for Grand Guignol shenanigans, but it seems as though the show is leaning really heavily on horror once again, which is a good sign for things to come for the series. Another good sign is that they’ve been doing something with the extra length of the episodes. The first episode was concerned with introducing a lot of the new characters and getting some serious corn syrup stains on the gorgeous sets, and this episode offers a little more of the same while nudging the plot forward every so slightly.

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The cast for Hotel is enormous, and while we met a lot of them last week, we didn’t meet all of them. After all, Mare Winningham’s Miss Evers needs some explanation aside from just being a maid, and in addition to getting a little of her origin story, we meet lots of other folks, like Evan Peters’ James March, the person who built the hotel, and Finn Wittrock’s instantly memorable model Tristan Duffy (he of the Duran Duran haircut and coked-up snarl). We also meet another couple of smaller characters, like supermodel Naomi Campbell’s Claudia Bankson and Madchen Amick’s Mrs. Ellison, who takes another round of anti-vaxxer abuse at the hands of Chloe Sevigny’s Dr. Alex Lowe, wife of Wes Bentley’s Detective John Lowe. It’s a pretty stuffed show, but there’s also a party, and that will draw a lot of attention and attendees when it’s also a launch for a new fashion line. There’s also a very high body count, lots of violent sex, and a lot of stylistic fun to be had as Hotel teaches us about the history of the Cortez.

One of the best moments of the young season, both from a story-telling standpoint and a film-making standpoint, was Ida telling the tale of how the Cortez came to be. As she supplies the voice-over and pertinent narration, we get a glimpse of Mr. James March (Evan Peters), a self-made millionaire in oil and coal who decides to flee to the West Coast after being rejected by East Coast old money for being unpedigreed. Spurned, he plans and builds his own hotel, a sprawling Art Deco masterpiece with hallways with no exits, secret passages, hidden rooms, and all manner of way to indulge in his favourite hobby: murdering lots and lots of people in a lot of fun ways (Think H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who built a similar hotel/trap in Chicago in the 1890s). Miss Evers (Mare Winningham, who is brilliant) is his devoted maid, evidence disposal accomplice, and general Gal Friday while he indulges in his lust for violence.

The thing that makes this segment work is that Bradley Buecker went all out to make it look like actual footage from 1925. It’s a little muddied at times visually, because you’re just shooting in black and white with a modern camera, but credit to them, they play a bit in the silent movie shooting style. There are a few shots of March that closely resemble some of the more iconic shots from Nosferatu, and there’s a nice bit of digital film grain added to the footage to make it feel more authentic. I’m glad that they didn’t go all out and make the dialogue sound as tinny as spoken word did in the first talkies, but it was a good compromise between modern film-making techniques and old-fashioned style. It helps a great deal that March and Evers are a whole lot of fun. Evan Peters is digging fully into that 1920s style camp, thanks to a very broad affected accent. Adding to the fun is Mare Winningham’s really fun performance as Evers, and it’s a winning twosome. She’s dedicated to her employer, and possibly in love with him, and as we see how March gets his wicked shaving cut, it’s actually a great moment for Winningham, because she gives this great little blushing chuckle when given the honour of choosing the manner of her death, and the way she laughs right before she’s blown away is just really dark and funny. The way she purrs over glorious blood stains is just the right tone for a show like this, and a great way to establish Winningham’s character in a few small lines of Tim Minear’s script.

Another character with a memorable introduction is Finn Wittrock’s male model Tristan, who is introduced to us snorting crushed-up pills, then stalking aggressively down the runway, picking a fight with Donovan, rummaging through rooms for drugs or stuff to steal, and eventually winning the heart of Lady Gaga’s Countess. He’s an exciting counterpart to Matt Bomer’s Donovan, who has grown lazy after decades of living the good life as Countess’s pet. Countess, as we find out via explaining his new life to Tristan, is something like a vampire, just without fangs. Immortal, boosted immune system, not imperiled by the sun but not happy with it, can be killed, drinks blood to live… the usual vampire rules, just with extra Studio 54 references and roller disco (although most of the soundtrack has been firmly lodged in 1980s goth and post-punk acts like Siouxie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, and Bauhaus).

The first episode was basically a bunch of unrelated character introductions, then bits of Wes Bentley’s cop life. This episode explores a lot more about the characters already introduced, adds new characters, and starts drawing some of the plot threads out for closer examination. There’s going to be tension between Tristan and Donovan, for sure. March is clearly still haunting the hotel he built along with Evers; Countess might be his wife if the clues dropped during the flashback are to be believed. The creepy albino children serve as walking blood filters for Countess; one of them is Lowe’s missing child, as confirmed by his daughter. There’s the issue of the serial killer, who seems inspired by March’s historic crimes. There are probably other threads yet to emerge.

That’s a good thing. American Horror Story likes to introduce plots, then forget about them or abandon them. A surplus of good ideas usually means that the standard amount can be discarded and the show will still have some stronger through points to carry it along. If they can successfully merge the Lady Gaga vampirism with the missing child and the detective’s murders, then it’s going to be a very satisfying season.

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Now whether any of these things will be consistently handled is another question, but hey, two episodes in and things are kind of making sense and connecting. When a show is this fun to watch and this sumptuous to look at, it’s hard not to look past little flaws like not-dropped plot threads and indulgent run-times. American Horror Story, even at its best, is usually more style than substance, and like the Hotel Cortez, Hotel has style to spare.

Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Checking In, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan was surprised by the episode’s 74-minute run-time, without commercials That’s two feature-length American Horror Story episodes in a row! Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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