Welp, that was gross! If last night’s premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel told us anything about the season to come, it’s that the five-season-old FX show is now even less for the queasy than usual. Guts and gore have always been a common feature, and Lady Gaga, who looms over this new installment as a part-Nosferatu, part-Catherine Deneuve matriarch, eats it up. Literally. In her big reveal—the one the show has teased for months—the Countess (that’s her) and Donovan (Matt Bomer) solicit another couple into an orgy back at their penthouse hotel room; mid-fuck, the pair slit the strangers’ throats and feverishly lap up the spurting blood before continuing on with each other. It was, somehow, not the most disgusting scene in last night’s premiere, though it does reveal Gaga to be a pretty great fit for the role. She’s impressive as a maniacal glam-vampire, and remains a a queen at lavishing in the unsavory.
She is also, unfortunately, not very good at saying words, but the words on this show don’t really matter.
Her kingdom is the Hotel Cortez, a seedy Hollywood Hills establishment whose fading glamour enlivens its overall spookiness and the horrors within. We all know this hotel, or have reluctantly stayed at it ourselves: It’s a musty, affordable place with rooms shrouded by thick, gloomy curtains and the sort of questionable, sprawling stains on the rugs or the mattress that make you wonder what happened there before you arrived. AHS: Hotel is designed to exploit those nagging, instinctual fears: The Hotel Cortez has endless staircases, Art Deco moldings, drooping chandeliers, and faded wallpaper to evoke the begone days when the windows actually let light in. Fall asleep in one of these rooms and risk never getting up, or worse.
Case in point: Our alleged hero, Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), wakes up from a nap in Room 64 of the Cortez to blurry visions of his son, who’d gone missing about five years earlier. Up to now, he’s been investigating a murder, and shows up to the Cortez after his suspect warns that he plans to visit room 64 (which, as we soon learn, hosts some of the show’s more vile acts). We’re given a look at his previous crime scene: a man and woman killed mid-intercourse in yet another hotel, the pair “married but not to each other.” The man’s eyes and tongue were cut out and left in a dish on a side table; the woman’s hands were nailed to the headboard above him. Next to the display is a candlelit shrine to the families of the adulterous couple, suggesting that the person responsible might be some sort of religious-zealot serial killer.
Whether the killer and the Cortez are affiliated is yet to be seen—the plot overall mostly remains to be seen. Instead, last night we’re introduced to the residents of the Cortez: some alive, some dead, though you can’t always tell which is which, and neither may stay like that for long. There’s Iris (Kathy Bates) the moody hotel manager and Donovan’s mother; Liz Taylor (Dennis O’Hare), a front-desk operator; a junkie named Sally (Sarah Paulsen) who craves love; and a mysterious monster who shows up with a screwed golden strap-on to rape unsuspecting guests—Max Greenfield, for starters—to death.
The show is visually stunning, but also nauseating. Premiere director and series co-creator Ryan Murphy isn’t shy about his debt to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, complete with the primly dressed children that appear in the hallways at a distance, blankly staring at you before running away or disappearing altogether. The hotel has the maddening confusion of a labyrinth, full of winding hallways you’ll need to be led down to know how to get out. And the camera purposefully captures the feeling that this place is both grand and intensely claustrophobic: In huge suites, terrors are sewn into the mattresses or revealed when nudging open a bathroom door. The awe-inspiring foyer gives you plenty of space to run from the monsters you see pressed up behind innocuous glass doors.
Those slow-building gotcha! moments are the show’s bread and butter, of course: AHS is at it’s best when letting the more terrifying psychological aspects that lurk behind the scenes creep up on you. It’s a shame that they’ve shown so many horrific things (drug overdose, rape, murder) just in the first 90 minutes; the urge to escalate from there might be the thing that dooms both this season and this show in the long run. Last year’s Freak Show drove away a lot of fans (and even, reportedly, series mainstay Jessica Lange, who’s not in the mix this year at all) due to its loopy plot and aimlessness, but Hotel does feel like an attempt to return to the whip-smart camp that typified previous installments like 2013’s Coven or 2012’s Asylum. The mood relies heavily on Glamorama-era nostalgia, from the fashion to the Tetris-themed playroom where Gaga hides her league of creepy, ghostly children. The show teases excess at every turn, and exploits the likelihood that you’ll lose your mind while giving in to it.
More than anything, though, this show is just so hard to physically watch: There’s so much rape, so much fucking, and so much blood that even normal things in the show begin to look disgusting. You squirm at the reveal of a perfectly regular plate of sushi, and cringe at the sight of a drug addict slathering lipstick all over her face. Some might say that’s a success of the show—that it’s so viscerally gross that even fans can only prepare themselves for the worst—but it mostly plays like the sort of torture porn that fit better when it showed up in Coven (via a racist woman torturing her slaves) or Asylum (via the cruel experiments carried out on the mentally unsound). Here, without context, watching someone get raped while being forced to declare his love to the person allowing it is a less logical and an even cruder display.
I had to resist the urge to throw up four separate times last night. It’s up to you, whether that’s an endorsement or a warning.
Image taken from YouTube.