October 8, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “American Horror Story: Hotel”



Even by the lavish standards of its franchise, the first installment of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL is crazily incoherent.  It plays mostly as a collection of extended, bloody music videos–and since subtlety has never been a strength of series co-creator Ryan Murphy and his team, it doesn’t shy away from immediate use of “Hotel California,” which abruptly cuts off at exactly the lyric you’d expect.  It’s a lot easier to identify the season’s inspirations–The Shining, Se7en, The Hunger, Twin Peaks, Nosferatu, the vibrating monsters of SinoJ-horror –than it is to figure out how they’re supposed to fit together.  If past experience is any guide, not all of them will.

For all the lack of cohesiveness in the 90-minute season premiere, a lot of what was there would be very familiar to regular Horror Story viewers.  Once again (a theme that extends to just about all of Murphy’s work, not just this series), we have a group of core outcasts, representing different layers of time and misery, who have gathered together in a single location to wreak havoc.  After spending their days in past seasons in the show’s haunted house, asylum, witches’ townhouse and carnival freak show, this time they’re staying at the Hotel Cortez in LA, a mammoth art-deco structure that stays in perfect ominous upkeep despite seemingly having no paying guests, a cleaning staff of one, and a great deal of blood to mop up on a daily basis.

The cast, too, is mostly made up of returnees, with the important exception of Jessica Lange, who’s sitting this stanza out.  The rep company includes Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Matt Bomer, Denis O’Hare, Wes Bentley, and Chloe Sevigny, as well as Evan Peters, Angela Bassett and Lily Rabe, who have yet to appear.  The role that seems to have been designed with Lange in mind (a variation on the Catherine Deneuve character in The Hunger) went to Lady Gaga, who in the opening episode wasn’t required to do much real acting as the hotel’s queen bee.  Lange was expert at injecting some pathos into those roles, but it remains to be seen whether Gaga’s talents will extend beyond posing and posturing.

As for the events of the episode, written by Murphy and co-series creator Brad Falchuk, and directed by Murphy, they included introductions to several different serial killers.  One slaughters people a la Se7en in ways inspired by the Ten Commandments.  That one is being pursued by LAPD homicide detective John Lowe (Bentley), whose son was abducted 5 years ago, a crime that may or may not be connected to these murders.  Lowe doesn’t know that his son is hidden away in a room at the Cortez that seems to be the hotel room from the end of 2001 but with giant video games on the walls.  Then there’s Gaga and Bomer, who may or may not be dead and may or may not be vampires, but who seduce couples into coming back to the Cortez for an orgy (the Hotel editor must have had a hell of a time cutting that scene without violating FX’s admittedly slim standards) followed by throat-slitting.  Plus there’s the bald, vibrating thing who may or may not have killed Max Greenfield’s character by raping him to death with a drill-bit dildo.  (More fun for the editor!)  Paulson is a junkie who also may or may not be dead, considering that Bates, as Bomer’s mother, threw her out of a high-story Cortez window 20 years ago after Paulson gave him a (fatal?) dose of heroin.

It’s all very stylishly filmed, with special credit to production designer Mark Worthington (even if much of the Cortez is cribbed from the Overlook).  Murphy employs a distorting fish-eye lens so often that he may singlehandedly keep the fish-eye lens industry in business for another year.  But the almost total lack of logic, both narrative and emotional, renders it all surprisingly unscary.  Since anything can happen for no reason at all, there’s nothing to anticipate, and aside from a few cheap jump-scares, Hotel is more gross than frightening.

There are, of course, many more episodes of Hotel still to come, and perhaps this will be one of the seasons, like the first and Coven years, where American Horror Story will come together in a somewhat satisfying way.  If not, well, as another line from “Hotel California” tells us, this could be heaven or this could be hell.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."