Tuesday, October 18, 2016

American Horror Story: Hotel – review

Directors: Various

First Aired: 2015

Contains spoilers

I have to open this review with the admission that I have not been watching American Horror Story as a series. I watched the first couple of episodes of season 1 and just didn’t get into it, however, as this season (5) had vampires in it, it had to be watched. For those who know as little, or even less, than me, it is an anthology television series with each series self-contained (ish, I am led to believe that there is some crossover in this season with the first season and the third season).

So, vampires – and a haunted hotel, a serial killer, ghosts and demons it would seem. A cornucopia of horror tropes wedged into a series and it was probably this kitchen sink approach that made the season struggle.

Hotel Cortez
The Hotel Cortez is the hotel of the title, a building designed and built by industrialist, sadist and serial killer James Patrick March (Evan Peters) with a built in murder palace theme. March still rules the roost (or spectral roost, at least) as his ghost is trapped in the hotel like anyone else who died there. Corporeally, the top bod is the Countess (Lady Gaga) – born Elizabeth Johnson, later Mrs March and now a vampire who resides in the penthouse with her lover Donovan (Matt Bomer). Donovan’s mother, Iris (Kathy Bates), works at the hotel in order to be close to her son, who detests her.

from the mattress
The first episode sees two Swedish women book into the hotel, be terrorised by a creature in their mattress, then moved rooms whilst they wait for the police to come and interview them and then attacked by child vampires. By the second episode they are held in individual cages and forced fed good foods whilst their blood is syphoned for the children (who in turn are used to create the Countess’ special blood stock).

Liz with John
Also in the first episode we meet cop John Lowe (Wes Bentley, Underworld Awakening), who is working a serial killer case (the Ten Commandments Killer). He is called to the Cortez by the killer and then has a vision of his son Holden (Lennon Henry), who was abducted five years before. It becomes apparent that the killer might target his wife, Alex (Chloë Sevigny), and daughter, Scarlet (Shree Crooks), and so moves in to the hotel to create a distance for them.

on the hunt
Finally, in the first episode, we see the Countess and Donovan out on a hunt. With the strains of US band She Wants Revenge (and I’ll come back to soundtrack) they go to a graveyard showing of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. They attract a couple, take them back to the hotel and kill and feed on them during coitus. The entire thing has a feeling of the Hunger - not just through the Avant Garde style of the vampires and the method of pick up (albeit using a movie rather than a gig by Goth staples Bauhaus) but because She Wants Revenge remade the scene from the Hunger in one of their music videos. The later use of the Flower Duet by Delibes in the soundtrack underlined this reference.

Lady Gaga as the Countess
I haven’t mentioned in all the above the ghost Sally (Sarah Paulson), who is haunted by an addiction demon, or transgender barkeep Liz Taylor (Denis O'Hare, True Blood) both of whom play major parts in the season and both of whom are exceptionally well played – especially by Denis O’Hare as Liz. Let us talk vampires, however. They are vampires – I know there were articles when the season first aired asking if they were… the V word is explicitly used in the second episode. The Countess (who is not a countess) was born in 1904 and was a movie extra before being turned by Valentino (Finn Wittrock), who in turn had been turned by Murnau. In a twist on the plot of Shadow of the Vampire Murnau travelled Eastern Europe looking for the fact behind the myth before directing Nosferatu – the twist being he found vampires who were all beautiful creatures (rather than the monster of Shadow of the Vampire) and they turned him.

The vampirism is a virus and gives the vampires a hunger. Without feeding they will not die, but they will desiccate and become mummy like. They have no fangs – the Countess uses a glove with metal talons to slit the victims' throats. They can be killed via normal methods (a bullet through the brain will do it as much as a stake through the heart) but they generally heal quickly so a non-mortal blow can be recovered from.

child vampires
They avoid sunlight as it saps vitality, however it does not kill them, but cameras cannot capture them properly. There is a possibility of pregnancy for a vampire, the gestation period is greatly shortened, the only such baby we see is malformed and remains as an infant. In a strong condemnation of the anti-vax movement a child gets, and is dying due to, measles. Alex saves him using vampire blood. This leads to the child turning his class and attacking the teachers but the virus has mutated so that the kids also have measles and only blood clears the spots. Failure to feed causes them to die.

Angela Bassett as Ramona
So, as the season started I had the impression of a twisted version of Twin Peaks (if that is possible) where horror tropes were more plainly played out but undercut with imagery and atmosphere that would find itself at home within Lynch’s seminal TV series. More viscerally dark, though less psychologically engaging perhaps. I was also struck by the superb soundtrack with She Wants Revenge and the Sisters of Mercy front and centre in a strongly chosen set of tracks. However, as it went along I became a little disengaged. The storyline became almost soap-opera like despite the strong ensemble cast. I have already specifically highlighted two of the actors but Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett (who plays a Blaxploitation actress, Ramona, who was turned and later spurned by the Countess) and Lady Gaga also need specific mentions - all of them bringing something special to the party.

Iris and Liz
I watched to the end but as the plot twisted through the serial killer aspect (it became too obvious, too soon as to who the actual serial killer was), the ghosts and the vampires (not to mention a witch as well) I became more and more certain that the series needed more of a focus and a strengthened narrative. Take Holden – the Lowe’s son, taken by the vampires before the season's time-frame and turned. The motivation his discovery would have had on the two parents would have warranted different, and much stronger, reactions than the story allowed for. The measles-kid vampire story seemed to vanish for a while and then get resolved in a blink of an eye. All in all, this wasn’t terrible but could have been so much better. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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