Review: American Horror Story (Season 5, Episode 1)

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Another Intriguing Venture

American Horror Story's major drawing point for each series is its fresh and original approach to classic horror tropes; and Hotel promises to follow in the show's success so far.

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The on-going success of the American Horror Story franchise continues; with the new season introducing new actors, new characters and a beautiful, yet deadly, new setting. With no Jessica Lange this season, there was some skepticism over how the series would pan out – but from the looks of the opening episode ‘Checking In’, there is plenty to keep fans distracted from the lack of AHS’s leading star. With sex, violence and enough blood to turn even the most hardened stomach, Ryan Murphy has once again distilled the qualities that make AHS so easy to return to – whilst keeping it fresh and original with the plot.

The first episode was a tangle of story lines jostling to be centre-screen; beginning with two Swedish tourists checking into the Hotel – they get the classic ‘bad feeling’ about the place, but decide to stay upon realising they’ll lose their deposit money if they don’t. After finding a strange, diseased man sewn into their mattress (what?) they are quickly moved into the mysterious room 64; a recurring central location throughout the entirety of the episode – and most likely the series – with consequences ensuing. We meet Iris (Kathy Bates), the grumpy desk clerk, Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare) an eccentric bartender, and Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson), a sadistic junkie, alongside Iris’s son Donovan (Matt Bomer) and his lover Elizabeth (Lady Gaga) who are residing on the top floor, indulging in foursomes and drinking people’s blood.

Outside of the hotel, a grisly murderer is on the loose, with Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) on the case to stop him – he is a family man at heart with a tough job to do (a clear stereotype of every crime/horror story ever); and his sights are set onto Hotel Cortez when he is directed there by a mysterious voice on the phone. With his son going missing in 2010 and a strangely familiar blonde boy roaming the hallways, could staying at the Hotel be more than he bargained for? Lets hope so. With such a host of characters in the opening episode, it can be hard to grasp what we’re supposed to be focusing on, but after a lot of strange sex crimes and visions in the night, the main story comes into play: the Hotel has been sold to a new owner, and the residents/workers will be kicked out without some sort of action set in place. Elizabeth is in control of the matter, as she is with all things seemingly, so we will see how easily her penthouse suite is taken from her as time goes on.

Lady Gaga slots in perfectly with the AHS aesthetic. Her dark, glamorous style and previous body of work make her a shoe-in for a role – and the murderous countess is one that aligns almost too well with the pop sensation. Not only a pretty face or a pretty voice; her acting is another credit to her ever-growing list of artistic endeavors. It must be said however, that all of the actors gracing the small screen for AHS season 5’s debut were fantastic – each actor has had only a minor role in the series prior to this one; so it was excellent to see them keeping up to the high standard that had been set by their peers with more screen time.

As for the visual content of the episode – the art deco hotel is shamelessly explored by the camera, taking us by the hand through the opulent environment and exploring every beautiful room in detail. Chandeliers, patterned carpets, textured walls and curtains all create such a believable rendition of a 1930s hotel – juxtaposed by the harsh whites and metallic finishes of the futuristic ‘hidden rooms’. The clash of past and present is done superbly, with costume (think diamond encrusted gloves and long, sweeping capes) staying on par. The camera work reflects this combination of time-periods also – a fish eye lens is used ominously throughout many scenes of the opening episode, throwing a warped and strange angle over a seemingly luxurious and beautiful place. The influences of films such as The Shining, Room 1408 and even Se7en are blindingly clear – which is another point in the favour of Murphy and Falchuk’s creation. Their thick, heavy atmospheres and looming sense of mystery and tension are shining examples of what AHS is trying to achieve – and so far, it is doing admirably at keeping up.

There is, however, a definite sense that it could all be taken too far. American Horror Story has taken a step over the edge of believability and camp-ness many a time before – and with such exaggerated setting and intense characters, there’s a strong threat this will happen again before the season ends. An example of this can be found straight away with the unneeded attack that was depicted on Gabriel (Max Greenfield, of New Girl fame) within the first half an hour or so – do we really need that level of sexual violence and maliciousness straight away? There is plenty going on to create a dark, disturbing atmosphere for fans to revel in without pushing it to this level. However, even with this slight dark spot on the narrative so far – it will hopefully play out into something meaningful and interesting rather than being a classic shock addition with no substance. We have had enough of those Murphy, enough!

In conclusion, American Horror Story has crafted an interesting collection of stories to unfold as the weeks progress – each one gruesome, gory and gratuitous in nature. A lot of the stories are even based on real-life events, which is an interesting bonus for those who like a little reading with their television for comparison. Whilst over-kill is definitely a threat to the mysterious and intense atmosphere Hotel has going for it; we will have to hope that Murphy has learnt the art of ‘reeling it in’ on his fifth attempt. Another unique addition to the AHS franchise has been created, and hopefully will live up to the expectations that come with the name.

American Horror Story airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm. 

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Deputy Editor of the Edge and FilmSoc President 2016-17. BA Film and English graduate, but not ready to accept it yet. Has an affinity for spooky stories, cats, and anything deep fried.

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