The fifth season of ‘American Horror Story’, subtitled ‘Hotel’, is the show’s first without star Jessica Lange presiding over the bacchanalia of weirdness. In her place steps another diva, the musician and iconoclast Lady Gaga, whose established public image seems a pretty good fit for the material. We already know that she can sing, which may or may not come into play later, but can Gaga act?
Well… unfortunately, not really. To be fair, she could certainly be a lot worse. She’s very good at posing and looking the part, just less so at line delivery or emoting. To her credit, she jumps into the role completely unafraid to bask in its most lurid aspects. One of her earliest scenes is a pretty steamy orgy that ends in bloody violence, and she nudges right up to the limit of how much skin an actress can show on basic cable. Whether that does anything for you or not will be up to you.
The story this season takes place mainly in the present day at a run-down establishment called the Hotel Cortez on the outskirts of Hollywood. From the outside, the place is obviously a dump. The inside is remarkably well preserved, if terribly dated in décor. (It also seems to be one of those TARDIS-like dimensional portals that’s much bigger on the inside than the outside.) Those carpets straight out of the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’ ought to be anyone’s first sign that this isn’t a good place to stay.
Our first victims are a pair of foreign bimbo tourists who mainly speak in a subtitled Eastern European dialect. They arrive and are immediately put off by how far the hotel is from their intended destination at Universal Studios. Unfortunately, the receptionist Iris (Kathy Bates) is a rude bitch who refuses to refund their deposit. They agree to stay one night. The place is tacky, it lacks WiFi, it’s in a cell service dead zone, and their room smells bad. Worse, a freaky weirdo stitched inside their mattress crawls out to scare the shit out of them!
Iris claims to call the police, and in the meantime moves the girls to Room 64. This is not a good room. Bad things will happen to them there.
The main protagonist of this season’s story is Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a straight-laced cop currently investigating a series of grisly crimes perpetrated by a psycho who is clearly a big fan of the David Fincher movie ‘Se7en’. He murders victims based on the Seven Deadly Sins and stages their bodies into gruesome tableaus. He also somehow gets Lowe’s cell phone number and calls the detective to taunt him about how he’ll kill again, as nutbags like this so often do. Later in the 90-minute premiere, he’ll lure Lowe to a crime scene when the cop has no choice but to bring his young daughter along. This causes friction with the girl’s mother (Chloe Sevigny). John decides that it would be best if he left home for a while to draw attention away from the family. Of course, he checks into the Hotel Cortez, and Iris puts him in Room 64.
Among the residents of the hotel are other familiar faces from past seasons. Sarah Paulson is a junkie named Sally. Denis O’Hare is the transvestite Liz Taylor. Although they don’t appear in this episode, Angela Bassett and Evan Peters are scheduled to appear later in the season. I’m sure we’ll probably see Lily Rabe at some point as well.
Lady Gaga isn’t seen on screen for a good half hour. Her character isn’t named in the premiere, but she’s credited as “The Countess Elizabeth.” Based on her taste for human blood, I’d say that she’s obviously supposed to represent famed serial murderess Elizabeth Báthory. In flashback, we discover that her boy-toy Donovan (Matt Bomer) is Iris’ son. Both he and Sally are apparently ghosts. Sally brought him to the hotel in 1994 to shoot-up heroin. Iris tracked him there and found him dead from an overdose. In a rage, she tossed Sally out a window to her death. Iris has stayed at the hotel ever since because it’s the only way to see her son.
This being ‘American Horror Story’, the hotel is populated with plenty of other freaks and, naturally, lots of weird shit goes down. A creepy little kid named Holden seems to be Det. Lowe’s son, who was kidnapped more than a decade ago. A mysterious figure who looks to be wrapped head-to-toe in Saran Wrap ass-rapes tenants with a horrifying strap-on dildo. Iris imprisons the two tourists from the beginning of the episode, whom she’s convinced are junkies, and plans to “cleanse” them by making them swallow a disgusting concoction of blended foods. One of the girls tries to escape, but doesn’t make it to the exit before the Countess slits her throat.
Late in the episode, a wealthy fashion designer named Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) arrives claiming to be the hotel’s new owner. It seems that the Countess sold it to him without telling anyone. What she has planned for him is unknown just yet. As he moves into the penthouse, he leaves his young son alone for a moment, and the Countess brings the boy to a secret hidden playroom (which kind of reminds me of something in ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’) where he meets Holden and some other freaky kids who are probably all ghosts.
It’s far too early to know what to make of the ‘Hotel’ season just yet. It seems promising, but then so do most seasons of this show. The last couple really fell apart as they went. What I liked about this episode is that it’s genuinely creepy and suspenseful, which the series hasn’t been since the first season. Gaga is no Jessica Lange, but she may be able to pull this off. I’m still with the show. With each season’s reboot, I see the potential for anything to happen, and I hold out hope for the best.
Obviously, it should go without saying that Lady Gaga haters will have little incentive to tune in this season. It’s pretty clear that she’s going to be a big part of it.