This week saw the return of popular horror show American Horror Story to our television screens. The series, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, is now entering its fifth season with AHS Hotel. As fans of the show will know, each season stands alone from each other with its own self-contained narrative; each depicting a new take on a classic horror scenario with a cast of recurring actors portraying different characters with each storyline. The fifth season, Hotel, breathes new life into the concept made famous in Stephen King’s The Shining, that of a cursed hotel with a gruesome history. In addition to The Shining, this season seems to make a conscious reference back to the first season Murder House with the same concept of spirits trapped in a haunted building, a slight disappointment to those expecting a completely original approach to the narrative instead of revisiting something they had already done.
The first episode opens on the arrival of two tourist girls arriving at the Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles and they find, upon stepping through the doors, it is like stepping back in time. The set designers did not hold back when it came to creating the lavish Art Deco style foyer in rich shades of crimson; the aesthetics of the hotel and the use of camerawork to capture it was simply stunning. Strange people roam the hallways, including several young children in an obvious homage to The Shining, but the girls’ worst horrors are realised when a disfigured creature physically crawls out of their mattress. They are moved to room sixty-four, a room which is almost permanently vacant as every new occupant quickly meets a gruesome fate. Over the course of the episode more characters are introduced; the hotel’s vampire fashionista owner (portrayed by Lady Gaga) who decides to sell the hotel to a wealthy businessman Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) and his young son, putting the existence of all the spirits haunting the hotel in jeopardy. Running alongside this is a secondary storyline following Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) as he tracks down a serial killer who leads him to the Hotel Cortez, where he sees his kidnapped son walking the halls. As the serial killer draws closer to Lowe’s family, he is forced to separate himself from them and chooses to stay at Hotel Cortez, where he is given the key to room sixty-four.
Every season of AHS portrays an overall theme which shapes the narrative arc; the opening credits sequence of Hotel is fixated on the theme of sin, a motif which is lost amidst the extreme horror and gore. Whilst the horror was done well- the scene where a junkie is brutally raped with a strap on drill bit left a definite impression- in many cases it seemed to be used purely for the shock value, structuring the show around the horror as opposed to letting it emerge more naturally through the plot. Portrayed just as graphically were the sex scenes, in particular the depiction of an orgy which turns into a brutal double homicide- a five minute sequence centred around Gaga’s character (set to Tear You Apart by She Wants Revenge) which was more like a music video; it could have been removed from the episode without affecting the plot. The episode is incredibly self-aware in its intertextual references, with repeated references to The Shining, from the eerie blonde children stalking visitors through the halls to Drake’s son- a contemporary revival of Danny Torrance. The hotel depicted was also inspired by the real life Cecil Hotel, which made world news in 2013 for the strange disappearance and death of Elisa Lam.
The previous season, American Horror Story Freak Show, marked the end of show regular Jessica Lange, who had played main female characters in every season. The role portrayed by Lady Gaga seemed to have been made with Lange in mind with only a few changes made to accommodate the the singer. The character Gaga plays seems very similar to roles she inhabits in any of her music videos and, whilst Gaga seemed to have been added to the cast largely for advertisement purposes, she plays the part well. The first episode also has the return of regulars Sarah Paulson, playing the undead drug addict Sally, and award-winning actor Kathy Bates playing the hotel manager Iris. Show regular Evan Peters has yet to make an appearance, instead the focus falls on characters portrayed by Wes Bentley and Matt Bomer; actors taking up the staple role of the blue-eyed, dark-haired leading men, almost indistinguishable in appearance from Freak Show’s Finn Wittrock.
The first episode of Hotel sets up the premise of a story which will play out over the next twelve episodes and ended with obvious hooks to draw the viewer back next week. If the gory first episode is anything to go by, fans of horror will definitely be satisfied with this season but whether or not it manages to balance the narrative well will remain to be seen.
American Horror Story Hotel premieres on Tuesdays at 10pm on Fox.