Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 10 hours 39 minutes
Starring: Lady Gaga, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Wes Bentley, Matt Borner, Chloe Sevigny, Denis O’Hare, Cheyenne Jackson & Angela Bassett
Ever since its 2011 debut, AMERICAN HORROR STORY has been a monumental success for FX. The fourth season set records and the same thing happened with HOTEL’s first episode (serving as FX’s most watched telecast). While the series has had its ups and downs throughout the years, this fifth season initially seemed to step back into the darker ideas of the first season. The overall story is not nearly as campy as COVEN or FREAK SHOW and begins with the same tone as MURDER HOUSE and ASYLUM. This can also be seen in one of the fifth season’s big plot points (ghosts being stuck inside the property where they died) being relocated from the first season of the show…to this hotel. That’s not to say that this is up to the same quality as MURDER HOUSE or ASYLUM though, because it’s not. This is actually my least favorite season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY thus far. It begins with such promise and then gets lost in a big patch of oddball WTF territory during the last six episodes.
The setting is the Cortez Hotel. This historic landmark is a prestigious upscale place where customers can crash for the night in peace and comfort…assuming they don’t wind up dead or someone’s meal by the end of their stay. You see, the Cortez Hotel is home to a wild cast of characters, some more bloodthirsty than others. There’s Sally (a ghostly prostitute who slays unfaithful men), James March (an undead serial killer who originally constructed the hotel as his murder castle), and The Countess (a vampire who resides in the penthouse suite and picks off men every night with her immortal lover). When stressed out Detective John Lowe checks into the hotel to investigate a serial killer known as the Ten Commandments killer, he sets off a chain of events that will change the Hotel Cortez forever.
The big problem with HOTEL is that the plot is extremely scattershot. This has always been somewhat the case with AMERICAN HORROR STORY (after all, the best season featured a combination of serial killers, demonic possession, and aliens), but it’s stretched to an annoying degree in this fifth outing. The tone is all over the place and it doesn’t seem like HOTEL ever truly finds its focus for the space of all twelve episodes. That’s not to say that showrunner Ryan Murphy doesn’t go balls-out in his approach though. The body count for this season is among the highest of the whole series (the show isn’t above slaughtering a room full of children either) and the sex scenes are pretty extreme for FX. This show fully pushes the basic cable TV-MA for all its worth. There were moments where someone casually walking by my TV screen could reasonably think that I was watching a softcore porn and it just happened to feature vampires.
Speaking of which, Ryan Murphy (who once stated that he wanted AMERICAN HORROR STORY to be wholly unique in its horror) relies heavily on vampires in this season. This undead bloodsucker storyline sadly overshadows the more interesting plot threads occurring between the rest of the characters, which includes one of the show’s best creations yet. This comes in Evan Peter’s James March. Peters has played good/anti-hero characters in MURDER HOUSE, ASYLUM, COVEN, and FREAK SHOW…but drastically changes gears for HOTEL. Based on H.H. Holmes, James March will probably be the best role that Evan Peters will ever receive in this entire series. Using upbeat body language, over-the-top line delivery, and a quirky attitude to his advantage, Evans’s March is the kind of guy who gets pure joy out of being evil…and it’s a blast to watch.
The same cannot be said about the rest of the cast. Denis O’Hare is good as transsexual bartender Liz Taylor, who receives a story arc mid-way through season that’s far more dramatically mature than anything AMERICAN HORROR STORY has given us before. It squanders this though by making Liz Taylor into a melodramatic mess in the latter half of the season, especially in the laughably bad finale. Kathy Bates doesn’t have much to do as the hotel’s desk clerk and overbearing mother to the Countess’s lover. Sarah Paulson is good as Sally, but then (much like Liz Taylor) also becomes an over-the-top cartoon character of sorts (becoming addicted to social media). Angela Bassett shows up to bring what she can to an on-and-off revenge plot. Wes Bentley is okay as the drunken detective, but his character’s storyline takes a rather unbelievable clichéd turn about halfway through the series.
The most talked about performance of this season is definitely Lady Gaga’s role as the Countess. Frankly, I found her to be a bit bland and wooden in the part, but that also lends to her character being a cold vampire who preys on other people’s emotions as well as their blood. Unfortunately, the Countess’s storyline almost plays out like a soap opera with vampires. We go through mini-plotlines involving many of her lovers (both past and present) and “children.” I found myself caring less and less with each new character. It certainly doesn’t help that nothing much comes out of the Countess’s many lovers as opposed to simply a rising body count for the sake of having a body count.
This season did not seem to balance the right mix of darkness and campiness. As a result, it comes off as a wildly uneven, goofy, and melodramatic mess. To give you a perfect example of what I mean, the best episode revolves around an undead serial killer dinner party and then we get a ridiculous looking killer baby that appears to have stepped right out of IT’S ALIVE. Not everything is a complete waste though, because the visuals (and two-story set) look impressive and an awesome soundtrack perfectly suits the gothic atmosphere. However, the many plotlines are scattered all over the place in a bad way. I didn’t care about many of the characters. Certain plot twists seemed contrived or clichéd beyond belief. Finally, HOTEL caps it all off with the worst finale in the series’ run thus far. Overall, I’d say to skip HOTEL and stick with the first four seasons (even COVEN is miles more enjoyable than this one). Hopefully, they can turn this series around with the rumored Slenderman-based sixth season.