“I’m going to give this place a very bad review on Yelp,” says one of the Swedish tourists lured into the Hotel Cortez. But desk clerk Iris (Kathy Bates) persuades them to stay. “Trust me, this place’ll grow on you.”
There’s something enticing about the hotel, and about American Horror Story, despite their shortcomings. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s previous excursions have a rich if unsteady appeal, an appetite for spectacle that often jettisons story and character but boasts a heady combination of accomplished acting and spectacular sets. As Vendela and Agnetha (Kamilla Alnes, Helena Mattsson) enter the Cortez, the camera swoops up two stories, the lens bowing out the grand arches of the entryway like the ribs of a skeletal leviathan. A chandelier casts its puny light into the lobby, dark even on a bright California afternoon.
The Cortez’s decor is packed with allusions, and it’s also an example of the show’s self-indulgent streak. Its octagons and squares in chestnut, maroon, and yellow play artfully on The Overlook’s iconic carpet without copying it. Then the camera follows Iris, Vendela, and Agnetha upstairs, where the pattern is more familiar: a series of interlocking hexagons, ready for Danny Torrance to hunker down and play. It’s derivative, it’s expected, and most of all, it’s overkill.
American Horror Story is all about overkill, and overkill is rarely graceful. It’s fun to see Max Greenfield slumming it as a low-rent club kid (even if I did yell “hair chutney!” when he entered), and he packs strong work into those few minutes. Gabriel’s obnoxious, then pitiful, and it’s painful to watch the light die out of his eyes. But that fun dissolves when this unknown man is raped to (what should logically be) death by a faceless ghoul. It’s appalling, it’s emotionally empty, and narratively, it’s a fate worse than death. It’s overkill by drill-bit rape.
In the contrasting brightness of their latest murder scene, Det. Hahn (Richard T. Jones) tells Det. John Lowe (Wes Bentley), “Our victim’s eyeballs are in the ashtray.” “And the tongue,” Lowe observes as “Checking In” delivers its nastiest turn, all the more potent for being understated: “Our victim” is still alive. (In a Murphy/Falchuk production, a tableau of two naked bodies, one pierced through with a spear and her hands spiked to the wall, one with his eyes and tongue cut out, both glued together in perimortal congress, passes for understated.)
Scarlett Lowe (Shree Crooks) burbles to her detective father about a classmate’s classroom barfing, “It was gross and awesome at the same time.” “Gross and awesome at the same time” could be the mission statement for American Horror Story, but with Gabriel’s drill-bit violation, it (I’m sorry) nails the gross without (so sorry) driving home the awesome.
Lowe’s insistence on putting his daughter’s bedtime story before a mysterious phone call doesn’t flesh out his humanity as much as it displays his lack of genre awareness, but like most AHS characters, his motivation doesn’t much matter. What matters is getting him checked into the Cortez, which is done in classic American Horror Story style: by overkill. The killer phones in a tip that he’s in room 64, planning to “do it again.” Lowe checks out the lead, and his long-missing son Holden (Lennon Henry) leads him a merry chase through the dark maze of hallways. When Lowe leaves home to draw the killer away from his family, of course he heads to the Hotel Cortez.
In room 64, the clock radio clicks on at 2:25, regardless of the hour. As in The Shining, time is out of joint in the Cortez. Describing their guests to Det. Lowe, glamorous desk clerk (bellhop? caretaker?) Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare) says, “Some pay by the month, some pay by the hour. Some of the old-timers have been here since the dawn of time,” adding, “You’ve lost something and now you’re frozen in time. Can’t move forward, can’t go back.”
The hotel itself feels trapped in time. “The prices went up after the remodel,” Iris tells Gabriel, who observes for all of us, “Well, that’s bullshit.” What remodel leaves a hotel covered in interwar wood paneling, dark as a cave, and littered with out-of-date vending machines and lumpy striped-ticking mattresses? The ’70s and ’90s simultaneously live in Sally, (Sarah Paulson), smudge-eyed in leopard coat and cameo choker, and her resemblance to Nancy Spungen points to an actual hotel with a notorious history.
The Countess (Lady Gaga), too, seems plucked out of time, her hint of silver-screen glamour tinged with pop-culture modernity. With her sleek coiffure, gowns, and gloves, Lady Gaga is reminiscent of Gloria Swanson—specifically, of Norma Desmond, an image the promotional artwork exploits.
The dialogue-free seduction scene in which she first appears is slickly exploitative and hellishly effective, playing like a music video (an impression reinforced by its initial echoes of the actual video for She Wants Revenge’s “Tear You Apart”) that shifts suddenly from lascivious to grisly. The couple picked up by The Countess and Donovan (Matt Bomer) at the cemetery screening of Nosferatu become audience surrogates, speechless at the spectacle around them even as they snicker at their seducers’ peculiarities. These killer scenes (sorry, so sorry) are what keep me hanging on, even after years of dismay and, worse, boredom over AHS’s lurid sprawl.
“Checking In” delivers both killer scenes and lurid sprawl, and it isn’t easy to tell what’s what. The serial killer helpfully follows up with the police by phone. The junkie defenestrated in 1994 is as lively as ever in present day (or whatever passes for present day in the Cortez). The Countess and her consort slake their lust and bloodlust. Tourists are caged and purified, the better to please corrupt palates. A mother consigns herself to the hotel to keep watch over her son. Missing children cluster in the secret game room, feeding on endless candy in elegant dispensers, and sometimes on blood. The hotel is sold in “a whisperless deal” to fashion designer Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson). Clearly, the Cortez has a checkered history and a perilous future.
But so does American Horror Story. “Checking In” checks off a lot of plot possibilities and introduces characters, but it’s impossible to predict which arcs will pay off and which will be discarded as unceremoniously as a vampire tosses aside a drained corpse. It’s a fundamental problem with AHS in each incarnation. Plots and relationships are introduced, then dropped, with frustrating frequency. Its predictable unpredictability doesn’t shock; it numbs. In a narrative hinging on vampiric imagery, it’s uncomfortably like punning to ask the necessary question: If actions rarely have consequences, if anyone can die and return again, if stories die off without warning, where are the (ahem) stakes?
American Horror Story tries to straddle two categories: It’s an anthology beginning each season with a clean slate and it’s an ongoing series with an ever-growing web of connections. But the series has proved so disappointing, even downright confounding, to viewers and critics alike that it’s reasonable to have (I am so, so, so sorry) reservations about this newest installation. The premiere of AHS: Hotel treats its audience like Iris treats Vendela and Agnetha. When their first room proves… untenable, they’re escorted, shaken and protesting, to a similar room where they’re expected to let down their guard. But how can they?
AHS: Hotel is a different room, sure, but it’s under the same roof as the misadventures preceding it. But even after the dead ends and blotted guestbooks of previous seasons, and thanks to the memory of its occasional dizzy surrealism or delicately calibrated pathos, I’m trying not to check out of American Horror Story: Hotel just yet. It might grow on me.
- Gross or awesome: American Horror Story specializes in scenes balanced precariously between scary and silly, between preposterous and resonant. In “Checking In,” a scaly hand reaches for Vendela at the ice machine. I guffawed. Then sharper focus shows it to be a gloved hand, glimmering with beads, and suddenly the image seems not only plausible but powerful.
- The Cortez’s bar is another echo of The Shining, as is Lachlan Drake’s hallway handball game. But there’s as much Barton Fink as The Shining in the Hotel Cortez, as its Art Deco woodwork and sconces suggest, to say nothing of the despoiled mattress.
- When Denis O’Hare first swans in, bald head gleaming as bright as those chandelier earrings, all I could think of was Dean Pelton. It’s a testament to O’Hare’s performance that he makes Liz Taylor compelling with little more than gestures and a few pointed sentences.
- Seven is another clear influence on AHS: Hotel, from the Ten Commandments in the credit sequence to the gruesome punishment of the adulterers, but it’s not clear how (or whether) characters’ sins and sufferings will tie together. But “Oscar blogger” Martin Gamboa’s death by Oscar statuette (suggested by flecks of gold paint found on, and in, the corpse) hints at the writers’ opinion of critics and critiques.
- American Horror Story can claim one thing: It’s like no other show on television, and it teaches us how to watch it—a form of appreciation that eschews such conventions as “liking” or “understanding.” People keep ranting about it, and people keep tuning in. “‘Relax,’ said the night man, ‘We are programmed to receive,’” croons The Eagles’ Don Henley as John Lowe settles into his room. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”