A twitchy, glammy young man with super-fly glasses checks into Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles looking for a safe, private space to inject some junk and float the day away. Silly glam rock boy! Hotel Cortez isn’t a place to escape and chase your white rabbits — it’s a place that punishes for them. And so it goes that as soon as the speedball hits his brain, a monster wearing a drillbit dildo walks out of a shadow and starts screwing him. A sad, ghostly woman enters the room. Frazzled hair, leopard skin jacket and torn fishnet stockings, heavy makeup and hungover — she looks like something from an ’80s MTV, like a backup dancer from Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” video shimmied her way off the screen and out of time. Her name is Sally. She tells the silly glam rock boy that the screwing will stop if he just looks her in the eyes and say, “I love you.” He does. And then he dies. The end.
Okay, no, not the end: There’s a whole lot more where that came from – and Lady Gaga, too – in the super-sized premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel, the latest iteration of the horror anthology from pastiche provocateurs Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck. Like every other season, it’s a stir of cinematic echoes — The Shining, Seven, The Hunger, Barton Fink – and more so than any other season, it seeks to entertain us with a speedball of ornately rendered sensationalism, then make us feel vaguely bad about it. The strategy reminds me of the Nikki Finke line: “Come for the cynicism. Stay for the subversion.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if Nikki Finke actually lives at Hotel Cortez.) Anyway, I can’t say “I love you.” The premiere – entitled “Checking In” – has its delightfully demented moments, but I was largely unmoved by its outrageous provocations. I fear American Horror Story – a franchise I’ve long admired but haven’t been wild for since the hot mess masterpiece of season 2 — has reached peak decadence.
Hotel has a whiff of reboot about it, which is fitting, now that Jessica Lange, who starred in the first four seasons, has left the building. Hotel returns the show to Los Angeles, the locale for season 1, and it focuses anew on a richly realized, haunted locale with a deep history. In fact, it’s the season 1 “Murder House” – a honeypot of tragedy, created by compounding, uncorrected evil over time, where the monsters and spirits are as trapped as their victims — transmogrified into an bloody brown art-deco monolithic with gold accents and splashes of neon. The lighting is dingy, the rooms reek of piss, s— and death (do NOT wave a black light across those mattresses!), but at least the maid service (repped here by long-MIA Mare Winningham) is good to getting bloods stains out the sheets. I suspect the Hotel Cortez is a stop on Stan the Man’s black bus Eternal Darkness Tour of notorious L.A. crime scenes. (A deep cut for AHS fans.) Signaling the full-circle vibe was the reappearance of “Murder House” realtor Marcy, played by Christine Estabrook, now rocking some seriously snowy hair. Season 1 was very stressful for her.
“Checking In” is a series of set pieces and character introductions that tease a lot of backstories and only hints at its forward-moving narrative. Hotel Cortez is a home to a number of permanent guests and longtime employees, some living, some undead, some eternal agents of some divine or hellacious order. Iris, the manager (Kathy Bates), has been there for as long as her son, Donovan (Matt Bomer), who is the current boytoy-thrall of The Countess, an alabaster femme fatale partial to bright red lipstick and scary-sexy lingerie. She’s played by Lady Gaga as part Theda Bara (“The Vamp” of silent cinema), part Catherine Deneuve from The Hunger, part Max Schreck from Nosferatu, an homage the premiere explicitly pays when she and Donovan strap on their leathers and catch a Cinespia screening of F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire flick at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Her best moment is when she fixes a hot blonde German tourist with a death stare and slashes her neck with a swipe of her blade-tipped gold speckled glove. Gaga is the show’s most potent symbol for all of its themes about our Bad Romance with fame, fortune, sex, sex, and more sex, materialism and consumerism, the denial of death and the corrupt want for cultural immortality – all the things that the Hollywood mirage promises those who chase after the happily ever after of never-ending Applause. Anyway, Gaga is pretty good in this show, as long as she doesn’t talk.
But wait! There’s more! In addition to Sally (Sarah Paulson), Winningham’s Miss Evers, and The Amazing Screw-On Dildo Guy, the premiere gives us a bunch of kids that look like zombified prep school kids who reside in a secret parlor room where one can play old videogames on wall screens; it looks like the white room suite at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (This week’s interpretation: Once, we dreamed of a future that was an incubator for high culture, technology-mastering Star Children. We gave them instead an oppressive media room that wires them for arrested adolescence and low-culture escapism.) We also get Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor, a character who looks less like Elizabeth Taylor and more like a vulture in drag. He’s a hoot who steals every moment the premiere gives him.
The show’s ostensible hero is John Lowe (a commanding Wes Bentley), a stern, square, family-man, tragedy-touched L.A.P.D. detective investigating a series of murders executed by a serial killer who likes to turn his/her crime scenes into grotesque, moralistic, religious art tableaus, à la the David Fincher’s Seven or Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal. Low himself is reminiscent of Hannibal hero Will Graham, the analyst with an intuitive, imaginative, self-implicating understanding of the criminal mind. John is an old-fashioned hero of an admirable kind, but we suspect he has “issues,” and we suspect that the perspective of the show is cynically suspicious of his righteous rectitude. Will Hotel Cortez break him or remake him?
The premiere is directed by Ryan Murphy. He gives it style to spare, most of it homages and subtle swipes from his influences. (He’s best at the neo-noir feel of the John Low scenes. Proposal: American Horror Story: Noir. Black and white. Chicago.) Murphy sure loves himself some eyeballs. You see them on T-shirts. You see them gouged from the sockets of an adulterous male. They’re implicit in the visual aesthetic, which favors image-warping, fish-eye lenses. It creates a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, but they also imply surveillance and voyeurism. The watchers, of course, are us, the viewer, who come to Hotel wanting to be entertained with outrageousness, but wind up implicated in a dense, contrived allegory about a culture that glamorizes the sins that it shames. They’re itemized in the credit sequence in the form of the Ten Commandments, presented out of order in glitzy neon. The last one is the Second Commandment, the one about graven images – the one warning us against worshipping idols or images. Murphy isn’t exactly a friend of Jesus, but AHS often makes me wonder if he and God see eye to eye on the corrupting potential of pop culture.
But you’ve seen all of this before, the spectacle and the critique of it, from this show and other, better shows equally interested in reflecting the media space they occupy, from Mad Men to Mr. Robot to UnREAL. Like so many of our graven images these days, Hotel is a lavishly produced, energetically made copy of a copy of so many things, all at once, including itself. The shock is gone, the pop is fading, and all that’s left is gaga. Is that enough for you? Then there’s a room for you at the Hotel.
American Horror Story: Hotel premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.