October 15, 2015 American Horror Story: Hotel – Checking In (Episode 1 Review)
Last Wednesday, FX Network aired the season premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel. The show, now in its fifth iteration, is a love letter to all of the tropes, traditions, and cliches associated with Horror and, like a love letter, it is often a bit overindulgent. It seems that with each season, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk take every criticism of the show (it is too implausible; it is too self-aware; it is not self-aware enough; it is too sensational; it is too cluttered; it is too silly; it is too confusing; it is too … too) and ramp up the very elements that inspire such criticisms as if to say, “That is the point.” Judging from the first episode, Checking In, which premiered Wednesday, October 7th, on FX, Hotel will continue in this tradition.
The first thing Horror fans will notice about Hotel Cortez is that its carpeting resembles that of The Overlook, but The Shining is not the only film Hotel pays tribute to. Almost every element is familiar in some way. The soundtrack, for one, is a focal point of the episode and features atmospheric ‘80s or ‘80s-inspired tracks by bands like Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, and She Wants Revenge. This, combined with some of the fashions, most notably the Nancy Spungen-esque leopard-print coat worn by Sally (Sarah Paulson), lend the show a nostalgic aura. The way the characters slink around in slow-motion while Darkwave plays in the background will remind viewers of films like The Hunger (1983) and Vamp (1986). Some of the imagery (and one of the kills in particular) is similar to scenes from the film Se7en (1995), and another moment is like a grislier version of an already grisly scene from Four Rooms (1995).
In most cases, it seems as if these similarities are intentional, and the show makes no secret of the fact that many of its plot lines are based on true events. (In this season, for example, American Horror Story veteran Lily Rabe will play real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, while the Hotel Cortez is inspired by L.A.’s Cecil Hotel, which has a history fraught with real-life horror.) The title of the series alone suggests that the show does not intend to tell a never-before-heard story. Rather, the show reinterprets the stories we know and love, and rerenders them for the small screen — with a healthy dose of camp. Recognizing the inspirational sources is part of the fun; Murphy and Falchuk have organized a large-scale Easter egg hunt for their viewers.
Most of the buzz surrounding this season has centered around the addition of Lady Gaga to the cast. The general public has come to look past the bizarre costumes that initially defined the singer and recognize that she is a truly talented vocalist. Now, she will have the opportunity to prove herself as an actress. However, in Checking In, viewers do not see much beyond her music video persona. Dialogue is sparse in this particular episode, and as the Vampire Countess, Gaga says very little. The role does call for style and presence, and Lady Gaga has both of those qualities in spades. The Countess and her paramour, Donovan (Matt Bomer: Magic Mike 2012), glide through the Cortez exuding glamour, authority, and sex appeal. They are the consummate Vampires, equal parts desirable and repugnant.
Speaking of desire, one aspect of this episode that might make some viewers uncomfortable is the sexual violence. There is a great deal of this, and these scenes are prolonged and graphic. As a whole, Checking In is one of the darker episodes of the series. The inhabitants of the Cortez Hotel seem a touch nihilistic, as if they are well-versed in violence and completely inured to its effects. It is possible considering the fact that the show concludes with The Eagles’ “Hotel California” – that the hotel’s residents have been there for quite some time, suspended in a purgatory where they must repeatedly confront their personal tragedies. It seems as if Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley: Final Girl 2015) and his wife Alex (Chloe Sevigny: Bloodline 2015) will be the protagonists this season, but it is more exciting to speculate on the stories behind the villains, lost souls, and misfits who haunt the Cortez. One can only hope that this highly stylized narrative allows those stories some room to unravel. CrypticRock gives Checking In 4 out of 5 stars.