When you see two blonde, pretty Swedish characters check into this season’s eponymous hotel and begin planning their trips to Universal Studios and complaining about wifi, you know they won’t be around for long: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, already delighting in a tongue-in-cheek adherence to tired (and misogynist) stereotypes, have chosen their first victims based on the typical narrative outcome that befalls such characters. And they’re not just blondes, they’re blonde tourists. And they’re not just in any hotel, but a spooky art deco — a style simply no stylized Los Angeles murder can do without — hotel. And it’s not just a spooky art deco hotel, but a spooky art deco hotel captured almost exclusively in — try not to scream — fish eye!!! As horror logic goes, such characters, in such a place, seen through such a lens, simply must die. The first episode (directed by Murphy) is true to its title: it spends a great deal of time following these seemingly insignificant characters — as proxies for the audience, a means for us to “check in.”
And so, the horrors they’re subjected to become the audience’s introductory vocab lesson in all the things that’d send the Hotel hotel’s Yelp ratings plummeting: terrible service, no refund policy, no wifi, faraway ice machines. The loaded definitions of these terms are rather obvious: terrible service… that’s trying to kill you; a no refund policy… meant to lock you in and thus facilitate said killing; no wifi… to ensure you cannot contact anyone or write that negative Yelp review whilst being disemboweled; and faraway ice machines… strategically placed so that creepy Kubrickian visions of children in long corridors can prepare you for the imminent killings. (Maybe that one is less obvious.)
First, these Swedish characters vessels are given one room. Fairly, they are discontent here, as their mattress incidentally contains a flailing ghoulie. When they complain to the salty clerk, Iris (AHS vet Kathy Bates), she kindly extends the offer of another room — one she notes has been vacant for quite a while. She pregnantly hands them the keys to Room 64, which are of course the keys to their demise. Soon enough, one of the Swedes unlucky enough to visit Los Angeles is watching as two cherubic, bloodsucking children thirstily huddle over her friend. (This isn’t the last of the creepy things to happen to them in the episode: they later end up in a torture chamber presided by Bates. When one of them tries to escape, her throat is duly sliced by a certain famous pop star who refers to herself as Mother Monster…outside of AHS. We’ll get to her.)
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the City of Demons, a troubled cop (Wes Bentley as John Loew) who’s married to Chloé Sevigny (playing Alex Lowe, an also-troubled doctor), is investigating a particularly disgusting murder. And alas, we have the season’s first disembodied tongue and eyeballs, a quarter of the way into the first episode. But if that sounds like mild fare for AHS, fear not: there’s plenty to fear here. For the tongue and eyeballs were formerly attached to a man, who is still alive, but is naked and nailed to a bedpost (and is, of course, lacking a tongue and eyes). Atop him is a naked woman. She has a spear through her middle, and is thus… not alive. There’s talk of a former, gruesome murder that seems connected: in which gold was found in the victim’s rectal cavity. Here lies a bit more foreshadowing: rectal cavities, and their desecration will, it seems, be a running theme this season. (If you read early reveals about the season, you’ll come into all of this with the knowledge that a drill bit dildo, and the demon attached to it, are some of the season’s most vicious antagonists.)
Back at the Cortez Hotel, a heroin addict is checking in: his fate is likewise sealed from the moment he becomes engulfed in the building’s dangerous deco-dence. (Would there not, however, have been something scarier about all of this if it had been set within the strategically inoffensive genericism of, say, a Courtyard Marriott?) Iris hands him the key to room 64 — despite his insufficient funds — telling him, “Mama’s feeling magnanimous.” Once he shoots up, the faceless, bedildoed character you may have glimpsed in teasers enters and, yes, anally fucks him to death. However, he holds onto life for long enough for Sarah Paulson to make her entrance as Hypodermic Sally (whose fried hairdo is surely supposed to mirror the effect of drugs on her brain, and who of course sports every costume designer’s insta-junkie textile of choice, cheetah print). Sally pulls up beside the rectally-hollowed stranger and asks him to profess his love for her. He obliges. Then he dies.
It isn’t until now that we’re shown exactly how Lady Gaga fits in to all of this. Her character, the Countess (the proprietor of the hotel), and Matt Bomer’s character, Donovan, are enjoying a good-old-fashioned romantic night out watching Nosferatu in the famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery — and attempting to court other night-picnicing couples for a foursome. Once they’ve ensnared the lucky couple, the four head back to the Hotel Cortez for what will surely be a pleasant evening: and it certainly starts out as such — as Flavorwire’s Alison Herman points out, this intro-to-Gaga is fittingly formatted like a music video, the gyrating bodies wearing as few articles of clothing as any pop star writhing in any typical music video. But since this isn’t any video, but rather a Lady Gaga video, mid-orgy, the mood transitions to sartorial horror, with the Countess and Donovan abruptly slitting their bedmates’ throats with their respective, bejeweled fingernails. (Murphy is delightfully embracing both the gayness and grotesquerie of his tastes at the same time: the two weapons used thus far have been, let’s recall, a dildo and fashion-y fingernails.) They lay down, spent, next to the spilling bodies.
Through all of this, Murphy teasingly releases us — only on occasion — from the suffocating walls of the Hotel to observe “normal” familial relationships: the Lowes seem pleasantly busy, and initially have the sorts of minor gripes about one another you’d attribute to a truly happy couple. (This doesn’t last.) John doesn’t like Alex’s cooking, and secretly, neither does their daughter.
The two of them seek shelter from Alex’s reign of culinary terror at a sushi restaurant while she’s working a late shift at the hospital. But while they’re having their evening out together, John gets a call, seemingly from the murderer from the case he’s been working on. Bentley might not rush — with his daughter in the car — to the home where the next murder has taken place, except the phone call he received came from his wife’s cell phone. It turns out she’s okay — she wasn’t even there. But the victims are not, to say the least, okay. His daughter unfortunately leaves the car and decides to search the house herself — and stumbles upon two corpses, posed vertically like grandiose sculptures in the LA mansion. The key difference between them and other tacky sculptures you’d find in an ornate home is, inarguably, the dangling intestines. Of course, this little girl will surely be exposed to far worse traumas than some piddling mauled-corpse exhibit.
Back at their house, Alex and John have a serious talk — the kind of talk anyone might have after accidentally exposing their daughter to a hideous murder scene. Alex and John also, it turns out, had a son. (It should be noted that both of their children are/were angelic blondes — much like the diminutive creeps Shining their way through the halls of the Hotel Cortez). In what may or may not be a nod to Freak Show (across this episode, the nodding to assorted classics and not-so-classics becomes so frequent that one imagines Murphy as a very wealthy and powerful Bobblehead), their son was seemingly kidnapped long ago, nabbed while atop a horse on a carousel. Now, Alex says she can’t stand to be with John anymore, because she cannot stop seeing their son in him. (This is one of the only scenes that aims to capture the audience through character-driven drama; as indicated by the trite reasoning and stiff delivery behind Alex and John’s separation, character-driven drama is not where Murphy and Falchuck excel). John, having already been tipped about suspicious activity (and seemingly drawn to the presence of his son) at the Hotel Cortez, decides to take up residence there. He’s not the only new face in the hotel: Cheyenne Jackson, as fashion designer Will Drake, all of a sudden owns the place.
John’s isn’t the only backstory to be revealed at the end of the episode: we soon find out how Iris came to be the gatekeeper to the hotel’s deathly amenities: she is Donovan’s mother. And Donovan back in the day, was a heroin addict, who made the careless call of trusting the product of a person wearing cheetah print. He and Sally had shot up together in the hotel — and Iris, suspicious and trying to monitor his activities, had followed him. She’d broken into the room, chased Sally through the hotel, then threw her off a high floor of the building. Thus: Sally is also a ghost. Or a something else. But not a person.
And so we come to the end of these 90 minutes of Suspiria-esque violence and visual saturation, Shining-esque claustrophobia, and Murphy-esque excess and digressive nonsense. American Horror Story: Hotel has proven, in its first episode, to be “a lot.” But is it anything more? And should it be? Stay tuned for another deep dildo dive into Season Five next week.