American Horror Story: Hotel: “Checking In”

(Episode 5.01)

TV Reviews american horror story
American Horror Story: Hotel: “Checking In”

More than any other season of American Horror Story, Hotel has a lot going against it. First, there’s the loss of Jessica Lange, the series’ star who won two Emmys during the first and third seasons. Secondly, this is the first season of AHS where, going in, we have been told that the story will tie directly into past seasons, and bringing all of these crazy stories together in any real way seems like a recipe for disaster. And while series creator Ryan Murphy has usually had at least two series on the air for the past few years, never before has he been in quite as much danger of spreading himself too thin with such similar series. Just a few weeks ago, he debuted Scream Queens, now AHS: Hotel, soon to be followed by the series’ spinoff American Crime Story.

But the primary concern about Hotel is that the odd numbered seasons—the ones that take place in present day—always feel more comfortable being ridiculous without anything to really tie the series together. Murder House was a disaster of barely hashed out ideas and Coven meandered aimlessly between its premiere and its finale. But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the contemporary seasons is the use of rape as a way to convey horror in a scenario that’s already plenty terrifying.

Almost immediately in “Checking In,” American Horror Story: Hotel makes it very clear where its homages/ripping off will come from. The Hotel Cortez’s carpet and bar both evoke thoughts of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel and the first few murders and attacks are almost too reminiscent of Seven. AHS has never been a stranger to downright stealing from other media, but by the end of “Checking In,” it starts to feel like this will be its most egregious theft yet. By the time Lady Gaga appears in Norma Desmond’s outfit from Sunset Boulevard and a key is handed over to a new occupant in an incredibly Wes Anderson-y, Grand Budapest Hotel matter, it’s easy to wonder whether or not this season will have any identity of its own.

“Checking In” is almost all style over substance. The Hotel Cortez’s art deco style, infused with plenty of neon lights and a kids’ room filled with Donkey Kong and Tetris throw an ‘80s vibe into the mix, this combination of which, at the very least, feels original.

After a fantastic cameo debut in Freak Show, Wes Bentley looks to be at the center of Hotel’s true story (sorry Gaga) as detective John Lowe. Lately he’s been investigating a series of disturbing murders, such as an Oscar blogger who appears to have been sexually abused and beaten to death by an actual Oscar statue (Murphy is never shy to take a shot at critics), and more recently a cheating couple who were impaled during sex, with their hands nailed to the headboard, the male having his eyes and tongue cut out, all while he’s still inside his dead partner. Right down to the way these crimes are shot, it’s hard not to be reminded of Brad Pitt’s David Mills in Seven.

Five years ago while at a carnival, Lowe lost his son Holden while he rode a carousel. We get it Murphy, you read “Catcher In the Rye.” Lowe and his wife Alex (Chloë Sevigny) are still having problems with the loss of their son, but after investigating a case and falling asleep at the Hotel Cortez, he believes that he might have seen Holden.

It wouldn’t be an American Horror Story premiere without way too much plot, and in the hope that something will connect with its audience. Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga play the vampire couple Donovan and The Countess Elizabeth, respectively, who leave their room (which seems inspired by George Michael’s “Freedom!” video) to go to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in order to seduce a couple that they can have sex with, and then eat in the comfort of their room. For once, the introduction of Donovan and Elizabeth is achieved by showing and not telling, with their entire intro scored to “She Wants Revenge,” with absolutely no dialogue. It’s one of the few examples of Hotel using its style to the advantage of the story.

“Checking In” tosses in all sorts of dark entities in its halls to ensure we know something screwed up is happening. A creature is sewn inside one mattress, while vampire children roam the hallways, in case you didn’t have The Shining references already bludgeoned into your head. To add at least some supernatural aspect to the actual plot, we discover that the hotel’s apparent manager Iris (Kathy Bates) has forced herself to stay at the hotel, despite how much she hates it. Her son happens to be Donovan, who used to be a junkie. His dealer Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) led Donovan to the hotel, where she gave him heroin. When Iris discovers Sally drugging her son, she murders her by pushing her out of a window. Yet somehow, Sally is still occupying in the hotel…

Which brings me back to the rape plot that is always used in the modern seasons. When another junkie arrives at the hotel, played by Max Greenfield’s Gabriel, Sally calls dibs on him. Almost immediately after getting high, Gabriel is attacked by a unknown person, dressed like the gimp from Murder House mixed with a mummy, and is then raped by what can only be called a power drill penis. We are forced to watch Gabriel scream in pain, beg for help, only to have Sally smile as she says, “The more you scream, the more he likes it.”

For some reason, Ryan Murphy seems to think that the most horrific modern fear he can exploit is that of rape. Despite there being a hotel filled with horrors he can utilize at his whim—and plenty more I’m sure we haven’t seen yet—he feels the need to add rape into the mix, and the most awful rape scene he’s indulged in yet. By doing this, Murphy goes for the easiest way to scare his audience, and it feels cheap and exploitative.

“Checking In” isn’t a good start for American Horror Story: Hotel. Already we’re seeing the odd season’s penchant for attempts to freak out its audience, rather than creating an interesting horror story with a decent plot. By giving us compelling imagery with an empty story so far, it doesn’t have the same effect that Asylum or last season’s Freak Show had—that ability to frighten while also being surprisingly moving. Right away, Hotel feels like all style and no substance, with cheap shocks and an abundance of “borrowing” from much better media. At this point…

all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show
all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show
all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show
all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show
all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show
all style and no substance makes Hotel a dull show

Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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