If nothing else, American Horror Story: Hotel represents a brazen doubling-down. The premiere plays as if the anthology’s creators listed every element that detractors have bitched about under the heading “Stuff We’ll Do More Of.” The Shining, Village of the Damned, Don’t Look Now, Barton Fink (partly a horror film, especially the last act), Se7en, Suspiria, Saw: You name it, it’s in here, plus dollops of Edgar Allan Poe and Clive Barker. But don’t bother keeping a running list of everything AHS: Hotel is referencing, or all of the commercial-TV taboos it’s busting, because your hand will cramp in minutes. It’s an explosion in a pastiche factory so immense that people will be finding bits of homage in adjacent counties for years. About 40 minutes into the premiere, I wrote on my notepad: “I give up.”
Unlikely as it sounds, that’s a compliment, in its way. It doesn’t translate as I will never watch this show again, but, rather, I surrender to this show’s vision and will keep watching it with an open mind, without expecting it to be something it clearly has very little interest in being. Series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are doing things here that are mostly not to my liking — not because I’m averse to them on principle, but because only a handful of modern filmmakers, including David Cronenberg and David Lynch, can pull off this kind of thing consistently well, and Lynch/Cronenberg they ain’t — but they’re doing them with such commitment that the result deserves to be respected, for its audacity and its indifference to what you think of it. I found the first episode (the only one sent out to critics; gosh, I wonder why) confusing, tedious, annoyingly precious, and often ostentatiously brutal, with even clunkier-than-usual dialogue (more so than previous seasons; consider yourself warned), but also darkly beautiful, deeply weird, and (sometimes) exhilarating. To watch even a few minutes of this thing, you must resign yourself to the fact that consistency of tone or quality — never values that have greatly interested the show’s creators — mean almost nothing this time. But it would be foolish to assume this is due to inattention rather than design. The premiere is filled with clues as to how we should watch it, from the glimpse of the German Expressionist dream-film touchstone Nosferatu playing on a wall at an outdoor screening to the entirely unironic presence of the Eagles’ purgatorial lament “Hotel California” on the soundtrack to the paperback of James Joyce’s Ulysses being casually read by the hotel’s concierge, a cross-dresser who for some godforsaken reason is named Liz Taylor (Murphy-Falchuk veteran Denis O’Hare).
Lady Gaga plays a character known as the Countess, who frequents the hallways of the fictional Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles with her lover, Donovan (AHS: Freak Show cast member Matt Bomer), and picks up strangers for group sex that ends, of course, in a bloodbath. Gaga is terrible here in the way that Madonna was terrible in a lot of her ’90s films, at once too poised and too blank. But she’s Gaga, a performer who’s as much an athlete and sculptural object as a singer-songwriter, so in this context, she works. Kathy Bates (another AHS regular) plays the brusque hotel manager who, after refusing to refund the deposit of tourists who have decided that the place is too far away from major L.A. attractions, leads them to their room (casually informing them that the place has no cell phone reception or Wi-Fi). Her guests smell a horrible stench and determine that it’s issuing from the mattress of their king-size bed — more specifically, from a surgical-looking scar in the center of the mattress, which, of course, being morons, they open with a steak knife. Sarah Paulson, the resident Meryl Streep of MurphyLand, plays a character named Hypodermic Sally, but let’s not kid ourselves: As her short blonde hairdo, withering putdowns, and nervously smoked cigarettes confirm, she’s really playing Jessica Lange, and she’s great at it. (Chastised for giving a drug buddy an overdose of too-powerful heroin, Sally growls, “I took the same shit and I am more than fine.”)
Wes Bentley plays a Los Angeles police detective who’s tracking a David Fincher–esque serial killer. AHS regular Chloë Sevigny, who co-starred in Fincher’s Zodiac, plays the hero’s wife; her inevitable send-off should be sponsored by FedEx. Of course the killer calls the detective on his cell phone and taunts him in a digitally filtered voice, and of course the killer chooses his victims according to a private moral code, à la Se7en’s John Doe. There are dungeons and torture chambers, and elevators that seem to descend for an awfully long time, if you know what I mean, and a faceless grey demon — listed in the credits as “The Addiction Demon,” for chrissakes — that has dagger-sharp claws and skin that seems to have been fashioned from brain matter, stomach lining, and pudenda. There are creepy blond children that seem from a distance to be twins, or at least siblings; they stand at the ends of hallways, staring at guests, and skitter away when confronted, like ghosts in a 1990s Japanese horror film, or like the murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now. (Ow, my hand.)
This show is pure sensation and spectacle, marinated in all the parental warning letters that accompany the TV-MA rating. There are individual stories, or “stories,” all of which unfold within the hotel or are connected to it, but there’s even less evident connective tissue between them in AHS: Hotel than there was between subplots in earlier seasons. At times we seem to be watching bits and pieces of individual short films or music videos that have not been so much integrated as placed adjacent to each other, like candies in a sampler box (or rooms in a hotel), then divested of nearly everything but the sort of material you’d cherry-pick for a trailer: sex, violence, heroin injections, supernatural visitations, jump-scares, arch one-liners.
The opening episode is a parade of nearly self-contained setpieces, often set to gothic pop and rock songs that play out at full length as supernatural creatures rape mortals and feast on their blood and drift down hallways in gleefully gratuitous slow motion. At times it plays like Hannibal’s goth-punk midnight-movie cousin: a shabby palace of id-blast fantasies and nightmares. So much of it is choreographed and cut in the manner of 1980s music videos that they might as well have shot the show on VHS and scored it with Billy Idol and Bonnie Tyler. The violence is unrelenting, sickening, and sinister, and would seem merely tacky were it not infused with a sense of (mysterious, for now — and maybe phony, if the slave-torture scenes in Coven were any indication) purpose. There are tracking shots taken from extreme high or low angles and shot with fish-eye lenses that make the hotel’s hallways, windows, door frames, and staircases seem to twist and fold, M.C. Escher–style.
Like the helicopter footage in the second season of True Detective, a lot of this stuff is pretentious eye candy that might play better if projected on the wall of a nightclub, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch a couple of the more elaborate sequences twice, to admire the photography and editing, the actors’ Kabuki-bold facial expressions and toned bodies, and the marvelous production design and costuming touches, such as the Countess’s bloodred floor-length cape, which billows as she stalks through corridors. Much of AHS: Hotel is merely opportunistic, and some of it is insufferable, but every few minutes there’s a hint of the uncanny or sublime, and the very worst of it is mesmerizing because it’s so handsomely produced, and because it stands in opposition to most values associated with so-called “Quality TV.” You’ve seen it all before, and you’ve never seen anything like it. The show could crater as early as next week. I’ll be watching.