FX‘s American Horror Story Checking In TV Show Review. American Horror Story: Season 5, Episode 1: Checking In opens with a shot of a decaying building in downtown Los Angeles present day. Hotel Cortez’s huge, cavernous lobby is in a 1920’s geometric design with a lush red, black and gold palette and not one human in sight. The music is slow, 80’s goth rock in minor key piano and electric bass… I am already creeped out. Between murders, drug abuse, disappearing blonde children, bloody sheets hanging in hallways, sexual violence, and starved, screaming men popping out of mattresses, I think Checking In is the start of a season of shock horror. This is Se7en meets The Shining.
Of the hotel inhabitants we meet in Checking In, the stand outs for me were Iris (Kathy Bates), Sally (Sarah Paulsen), Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare), and Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley). One moment, Detective Lowe was stoic while investigating a gruesome half-murder/half-mutilation case. The next moment, Detective Lowe was reading his little girl a bedtime story about the psychological development of female children. You simply do not know what to make of Detective Lowe until Liz Taylor (O’Hare) – covered in colorful silks and heavy make-up – pegs Detective Lowe as a man frozen in the pain of unspeakable loss. We find out later that Detective Lowe lost his son, Holden. It seems Liz Taylor might be the resident sage.
The concierge Iris (Bates) and the enigmatic Sally (Paulsen) have been feuding for decades for good reason. These two tear into each other with sharp claws in every conversation. Bates and Paulsen have a toxic chemistry that draws you into their drama. I cannot wait to see what they do to each other, although Iris did push Sally out of a window, so I did not have to wait long. Iris only stays at the hotel so she can be close to her son Donovan (Matt Bomer) who is playmate to Countess Elizabeth (Lady Gaga). Gaga is essentially playing what she has always played – sexy and deadly. The introduction of the Countess and Donovan even looks like a clip out of a Gaga music video – too choreographed to be shocking or taken seriously. It is revealed that the Countess is a vampire and her subjects in Hotel Cortez are too (Maybe? Mostly?). The Countess collects people. She even possesses Holden. Events bring Detective Lowe to stay at Hotel Cortez, and unknowingly closer to his son, or what remains of his son since it has been five years since his disappearance and the boy has not aged.
We also meet Detective Lowe’s wife Alex (Chloë Sevigny), Detective Hahn (Richard T. Jones), and Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson), the new owner of Hotel Cortez. But their scenes were too fleeting to really have an impact. Although, Alex does kick her husband John out for a while because he reminds her of their son. She is the catalyst for his stay at Hotel Cortez.
Hotel Cortez is a character in itself. Abundant use of a fish bowl visual effect makes it seem like you are looking through a peep hole as you watch people travel in the elevator and through the halls of this sinister hotel. At times, we see only silhouettes of human beings against tiled bathroom walls or faceless creatures appearing out of pitch black doorways. Room 64 is a mystical vortex of horrors, while the most amazing game room I have ever seen is ensconced behind one of the random hallway walls (floor-to-ceiling Tetris, Pac-Man, anyone?). The Countess’ massive suite is lavish with dark floors, tall ceilings and heavy French doors. Oh yes, the rooms of Hotel Cortez are characters too.
I think American Horror Story: Hotel is going to test stomachs. (Some scenes evoked post-traumatic flashbacks to David Fincher’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, or Gone Girl.) The opening credits alone are disturbing, juxtaposing vivid illumination of the Ten Commandments with bloody, hedonistic images. Checking In is beautifully shot and edited, but it may just be a great, pretty ball of controversy. I really hope that the story is not overshadowed by the horror. Checking In leaves us with a montage of Detective Lowe checking in to Hotel Cortez while “Hotel California” by Eagles plays “You can check-out any time you like, / But you can never leave.” Fitting.
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