American Horror Story: Hotel S05E01 “Checking In” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Wednesdays, 10pm
Writers: Ryan Muphy & Brad Falchuk
Director: Ryan Muphy
Essential Plot Points:
- At the Hotel Cortez in the not-exactly-thriving hub of LA, Vendela and Agnetha, a pair of European backpackers, check in. They’re disturbed by the hotel’s distance from the attractions they want to see and the creepy air to the hotel. They ask for their deposit back but Iris, the manager, refuses. Reluctantly, they agree to stay.
- In their room, the pair notice a hideous smell coming from their mattress. They realise it’s been sewn up and release the stitches, recoiling in horror as a pustulant, naked figure crawls out of it, screaming. Iris apologises, tells them they can’t leave before the police talk to them and takes them to Room 64. There, the backpackers are attacked by two blond-haired, apparently vampiric children.
- Elsewhere, Detective John Lowe is a cop on the edge. He’s chasing the Ten Commandments Killer, a murderer who exacts horrifically specific biblical vengeance on his victims. He’s also mourning the loss of his son, several years previously. An anonymous tip sends him to Room 64 at the Cortez where he falls asleep and is woken by his vanished son, one of the two children who attacked the backpackers. After the children run off Lowe loses track of them. Disturbed by what happened, he returns home.
- The Countess and Donovan wake up and dress for the evening. They visit an outdoor screening of Nosferatu, seduce a nearby couple and take them back to the hotel. There, they have sex then tear their lovers’ throats out, feasting on their blood.
- Lowe takes his daughter out for dinner and gets a text from his wife, pleading for help. He rushes to her location and confronts the Ten Commandments Killer. The man eludes him and his daughter screams as she stumbles across his latest murder scene.
- At the hotel, Iris chastises the backpackers, who are now locked inside bizarre, neon, Iron Maiden-like cages. She’s about to force feed them a meat smoothie when Sally appears and bullies her into leaving the women alone. Sally releases one of the two, who, terrified, immediately flees. She’s confronted by the Countess who slices her throat open. The Countess then leaves, warning Iris this can never happen again.
- In flashback, we see Lowe’s son disappear at Santa Monica pier five years previously. We then see him at home, argue that if he moves out, the killer won’t target his family. His wife tearfully accepts this and he heads out.
- In another flashback we see Iris arrive at the hotel 20 years previously, trying to stop Donovan from shooting up with Sally in one of the rooms. Iris murders Sally by pushing her out of a window then finds the Countess crouched over Donovan’s unconscious body.
- At the Cortez, Iris is immensely disturbed to find wealthy designer Will Drake swan in with a realtor. Drake is the new owner of the hotel and he surprises a sleeping Donovan who, like Iris, is horrified at the thought of being thrown out. The Countess, on the other hand, is remarkably calm, and welcomes both Will and his son, Lachlan. She takes Lachlan to see a secret room, hidden behind a wall panel. The room is full of candy, video games and blonde, unnaturally calm children. One of them is Detective Lowe’s son…
- As the episode closes, Lowe moves into the Cortez. “Hotel California” plays on the soundtrack and cuts out on the line “You can never leave”.
Hotels are weird. Like departure lounges they’re associative spaces, buildings you live in on your way somewhere else. Horror’s always had fun with hotels, and based on this episode, American Horror Story is going to enjoy this new playground. Murphy’s direction is glorious, crammed full of arcing, swooping shots and using the hallways to wonderfully unsettling effect. There’s an early tracking shot following one of the world’s unluckiest pair of backpackers down a hallway that’s just lovely. The various hotel denizens she encounters, some of whom may even be alive, all fit in just well enough to not tip her off. It’s a subtle, queasy scene that gives you the same sense of dislocation the characters have and it sets the rest of the episode up really well.
As does Iris, played by Kathy Bates. The hotel manager is a gloriously callous, grumpy figure who’s never played for laughs and glues the episode’s various plots together. She’s also got what looks to be a hell of an arc to come over the series. This episode alone sees her go from villain to victim to tragic figure all in the space of an hour.
That willingness to shift tone is what really works here. Wes Bentley’s gloriously straight-laced turn as Detective Lowe is the perfect antidote to the scream queen horror of the backpackers. Likewise, the elegantly wasted rock and roll decadence of Gaga and Bomer offsets Bentley nicely. And orbiting them all, wasted and angry and probably not quite dead or alive, Sally. Sarah Paulson doesn’t know how to turn in bad work and here she’s on top form. If a single plot has my attention this season, it’s her and how she, Iris and Donovan bounce off each other.
That interrelation is what really works here; this group of disparate people orbiting around each and the shabby, musty star that is the hotel. There’s a sense of something secret living in every room and the hotel and its denizens play something like a down-at-heel version of Nightbreed’s Midian. They’re also, mostly, surprisingly sympathetic. O’Hare’s Liz Taylor and Lowe in particular both play as remarkably likeable, crumpled characters. You like them, even with (and perhaps because of) Bentley’s gloriously CSI Miami shades removal in his first scene.
It doesn’t all work. The backpackers are a little too on-the-nose, but the real problem here is the rape scene. Gabriel, an addict, buys a room to shoot up for the night. A few seconds after doing so, he’s attacked and raped to death by a bizarre, demonic figure wearing what looks like a large drill-shaped strap-on. It’s an immensely disturbing scene and one that right now has almost no context. We see hints of the creature that attacks Gabriel at other points in the episode but right now this is the one part of the episode that plays like horror for horror’s sake. Hopefully later episodes will provide some context. They certainly need to.
Aside from that, though, this is an immensely strong opening to the season. The various plots are all moved along, the cast are uniformly very good and the episode is shot with a hallucinatory beauty that’s almost David Lynch-like in spots. The Cortez may look a little rundown, but this is the most interesting, and new, American Horror Story has felt in a while.
- The direction was glorious. The swooping, arcing camera shots and fishbowl lenses do a great job of putting the alien feel of the Cortez across.
- Lada Gaga. She’s going to be one of the lightning rods for the show and you know what? Good. She’s a perfect choice for the role and she nails it.
- The structure. This is less one story and more three happening in the same place and connected in ways we don’t see yet. That’s going to annoy some people, and the show’s already been compared to the original season in that regard. For our money, this is the most accessible, and interesting, AHS has been for a while.
- The rape scene needs, very badly, to have an explanation by the end of the season. Because right now it looks like it’s in there for a cheap, and very very nasty, shock.
The Probably Controversial:
- This is the first Jessica Lange-free season the show’s had and that’s a good thing. She’s been a hugely successful part of a lot of its run but last season she was one of the things that ultimately detracted from the show. This season has already benefited, massively, from the focus shifting back to an ensemble and away from the Jesscia Lange And Her Amazing Friends model.
- Shot of the episode is the elegantly wasted Donovan and the Countess, reclining post coitus and homicide in the remains of their victims. Horrific and mundane all at once.
- The sign in the neon cage room of death and smoothies, “Pain Don’t Hurt”, is a Roadhouse quote. No idea why, but you have to admire the aesthetic.
- Holy monkeys this is an insanely great cast. It helps that they’ve mostly worked together before too.
- Kathy Bates is, of course, best known for Misery. However, she’s also been strikingly classy in both Titanic and The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, as well as turning in a definitive performance in Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Café.
- Sarah Paulson is another longtime member of the American Horror Story players. She was also one of the stars of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and was Dr Caron, the scientist who explains just what the Reavers are in Serenity.
No, really, she was.
No, go look. I’ll wait.
- Wes Bentley exploded onto the scene with American Beauty. You may also have seen him in Soul Survivors with Eliza Dushku or as the magnificently bearded Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games. There’s also the outside chance you caught him as the lead in deeply odd sci-fi samurai movie Hirokin.
- Matt Bomer is a recent addition to the AHS family and has impeccable genre credentials. As well as appearing as mega-spy Bryce Larkin in Chuck and relentlessly suave conman Neil Caffrey in White Collar, he also voiced Superman in Superman: Unbound. You can, and should, also track down Bomer’s work in the excellent Magic Movie duology and Space Station 76.
- Chloe Sevigny hasn’t been in AHS since the second season but she hasn’t been idle. Sevigny’s work is often difficult but never bad and we recommend her recent turn in the Netflix series Bloodline in particular. Alternately, her turn in the criminally under-rated Zodiac is also great.
- Denis O’Hare is a proud member of the ‘That Guy Who Was In That Thing That Time!’ corps of elite character actors. His turn as Liz Taylor here is magnificent, but odds you remember him as the amiably terrifying vampire elder Russell Edington on True Blood.
- Cheyenne Jackson is not Todd Stashwick, who plays Deacon on 12 Monkeys although the resemblance is uncanny. He was excellent as Danny on 30 Rock and you may also have caught his memorable turn as Dustin Goolsby on Glee.
- Lady Gaga is of course a massively successful recording artist but this isn’t her first acting role. She’s had often brief, always fun spots in movies like Machete Kills, Muppets Most Wanted and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.
- The hotel jukebox is very well stocked judging by this episode. We got “The Eternal” by Joy Division over the opening; “Never Land (A Fragment)” by The Sisters of Mercy over the rape scene; and “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge over the seduction and double murder. Plus the definitive “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” over Will and Lachlan’s arrival, “Downtown” by Petula Clark during Iris’s flashback and “Body and Soul” by the Benny Goodman Trio playing on the radio. But let’s face it, “Hotel California” playing over the end tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
Review by Alasdair Stuart