FX’s American Horror Story
Season 5, Episode 1: “Checking In”
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy
* For a review of the Season 4 Freak Show finale, “Curtain Call” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Chutes and Ladders” – click here
Opening this new season, there are plenty of interesting things happening over at Falchuk, Murphy & Co.
We fade in on the Hotel Cortez, looming over the street below like an ancient building. A couple blonde foreign tourists, maybe Swedish, enter the doors of the luxurious and massive hotel; one of them even says, “It‘s so quiet. It‘s like a tomb.”
They meet Iris (Kathy Bates) who is taking care of the front desk, checking people in and showing them to their rooms. All the while a slick, laid back piece of music plays underneath the scenes – Iris shows the girls to their room, passing through long, empty halls.
Already from the start we’ve got a ton of creepiness: first one of the maids is trying to steam out a big bloody stain in a sheet down one hallway, then a creepy lone child pointing eerily appears down another. There’s also a dreamy moment where we see a gold, glittery glove with pointy nails reaching out for one of the tourists, as she is back on; we see only the glove, no doubt belonging to Lady Gaga’s character who we’ve yet to meet, and no real noise only unsettling music lowly building, then cut to the tourist turning around, nobody there. Spooky!
I feel really bad for these tourist women. They discover a foul smell in their new room. Eventually tracking it to the bed, they rip off the sheet to discover a large stitching made through its middle. Cutting it open, a good idea or not? Probably… not. A hand bursts from out the mattress and a terrifying man with nasty, yellowed teeth on blackened gums, sores on his body, bursts up screaming.
This part actually reminded me a lot of Se7en. Not positive if Murphy and Falchuk intended this as a sort of sly homage to the scene where Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt find a near dead man strapped to his mattress still alive, even though he looked positively foul. But either way, it was awesomely frightening and definitely takes me back to Fincher’s movie.
Iris is quick to put the girls in another room, assuring they’ll not be paying for the previous one. When confronted about having said there were no other rooms available, Iris simply tells the girls “This one we don‘t rent out” and already this season is a creepshow. Presumably the cops are on their way, though, it’s unsure whether these women will survive until then or not.
Of course quickly we find two little children, vampires probably, feeding off one of the tourists, as the other one walks in to witness it all happening.
Detectives John Lowe (Wes Bentley) and Detective Hahn (Richard T. Jones) show up to a crime scene – a man and a woman are posed having intercourse, nailed in place, as well as the man having his tongue and eyeballs torn out. Turns out it was an affair. But as Lowe says: “This isn‘t jealousy. This is something else.” This whole scene is downright brutal, in the right horror sort of way. Poor dude is stuck inside the dead woman; his wails just before we cut to Lowe back at the station are bloodcurdling.
Lowe clearly has a good relationship with his daughter, although the one with his wife seems strained; when his daughter, via FaceTime, asks her mother if she wants to talk to daddy, to which mom responds simply “no“. I like Lowe from the start, not just because I love Wes Bentley, I think it’s a solid character judging from his opening scenes.
Then he receives a call – from the one who nailed those people to the bed, saying he’ll be doing it again. Uh oh.
Introducing, now, for your pleasure – Max Greenfield as Gabriel.
He meets Iris at the front desk looking for a room. She gives him #64; same room where the girls were put. Appears as if Iris is in on whatever is happening around the place. No matter, Gabriel looks to be a strung out, self-centric junkie who cares about nothing other than his fun.
Furthermore, we get to meet Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) who tells Iris she’s got “dibs on this one.” Then, briefly and without any words, we also get a look at Denis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor; cannot WAIT to see what he’s bringing to the table this season, what an impressive character actor.
When Gabriel makes it back to his room, yes, yes, he shoots up a bit of junk. Then the visions begin – the maid from earlier who’d been steaming out blood, but even worse is an ugly, deformed demon-like creature who comes out of the darkness, bends Gabriel over, and brandishes a STEEL DRILLBIT DILDO! Yowzahs.
Detective Lowe arrives back at the front desk of the Cortez. He wants to have a look in Room 64, where Gabriel is being raped by the hideous creature. Liz Taylor is called out, dressed in fine fashion, to take the detective up to the room.
There is an awfully vicious rape going on with Gabriel and the creature, while Hypo Sally shows up telling him “the more you scream, the more he likes it.” She wants Gabriel to tell her he loves her, that if he does it everything will stop, the pain will go away. There’s something even more disturbing about her part in it all than the actual rape itself, which is horrific – I’m so intrigued already in this first episode by Sally in particular, the creature, that it’s unbelievable.
Great, great and archetypal AHS camerawork happening in “Checking In”. Lots of those odd, high and low angles, big wide views from up above, et cetera. One of my favourites is the low tracking shot behind Liz Taylor and Detective Lowe as they walk the halls to Room 64: elegant, sort of ominous, but also beautiful as O’Hare floats his arms around in the air and his long outfit flows on the gentle breeze. Incredible stuff. Something I always look forward to in each season is seeing how the show adapts to the new locations in terms of the way the AHS aesthetic (both visual and musical) is used. This beginning episode promises both wild and interesting things happening in regards to both plot and style.
Meanwhile, Lowe is seeing one of the creepy children in Room 64. He gives chase out into the halls and it looks like he might be slowly losing his mind. What is Lowe’s story? Perhaps he’s not all I thought he was originally, or maybe the Hotel Cortez is really busting his brain up quick.
We’re finally treated to a good look at Countess Elizabeth (Lady Gaga) and her companion of sorts Donovan (Matt Bomer). The introduction to these characters is magic – “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge plays in the background, as the Countess and Donovan go to an outdoor showing of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. There’s lots of the psychosexual mania happening in this sequence with the Countess and Donovan taking a couple from the movie back to the hotel, up to their bloody little love nest.
I won’t spoil EVERYTHING that happens because it’s twisted, sexy, nasty, and brings the savage horror to Season 5 Hotel right from the top. I’ll hope there’s plenty, plenty more of this to come. The aftermath of this scene, as Donovan and the Countess lay on the bed afterwards, it’s chilling and so nastily gorgeous!
The two tourists from our opener are now caged into some strange steel traps lit with neon lights. They’re terrified, of course. Iris has a good tray full of a bunch of different meats, oysters, alcohol, et cetera. She’s decided to help flush their systems out, having gone through their luggage and discovering they are fairly drugged up party girls. But this force-feeding by tube is a bit intense, I would say. Iris loves this sort of stuff, obviously.
When Hypo Sally walks in, there seems to be a good deal of tension and annoyance between her and Iris. For whatever reason, Iris blames Sally for “all my suffering” claiming she’s done with all the bullshit.
Then we figure out: they’re being primed for eating, for their blood, so that she can eat them. She? You know it’s the Countess.
One of the tourists is let free by Sally, told to run. Is this just a trap, or is it real? Not that it matters: the Countess appears while Iris is trying to catch her. Elizabeth whips out one of her sharpened nails and slits the young girl’s throat. A nice, nasty bloodletting.
So the reason Dt. Lowe was running after the boy in the Cortez is because his son died at some point; his daughter tells him, while they go out for father-daughter sushi, she “can‘t remember his face anymore.” Or at least that’s what I gather. What I love about this series overall is the exposition doesn’t always come flat out and in your face with one single scene. Better for it, don’t want to give too much up right away.
Lowe gets a text from his wife: an address and the words HELP ME. The detective makes his way to the address, where the police outside watch his daughter Scarlett. Inside, Lowe receives a call from the mysterious voice who phoned earlier, this time telling him: “I told you I‘d do it again.”
When the cop wanders away from Scarlett, she heads inside curiously and winds up finding two disembowelled victims hanging in one of the rooms, guts about to hit the floor.
After this, with a flashback, we watch Lowe and his family – plus his little blonde son Holden – at a carnival back in 2010. Texting on his phone, Lowe turns around while his son rides the carousel. Turning back: the boy is gone. Any parent’s nightmare.
Back in the present day, Lowe’s wife is terrified about the calls he is getting, she wants to move, she wants a gun, anything to feel safe. He is planning to move out in order to not have his family in the line of fire. Emotional scene between Lowe and his wife Alex (Chloë Sevigny); two great actors head to head, lots of good chemistry to come, I feel.
Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) comes to the Hotel Cortez. As does Marcy (Christine Estabrook) from Season 1; she even talks about putting her dog down, who came to her through unfortunate circumstances – remember? Either way, it seems as if Drake is there as a potential buyer, or rather he’s pretty much already bought the place. Iris is a bit concerned, as is Liz Taylor, when they hear the news. Is the Countess Elizabeth hiding things from them?
When Marcy takes Drake around, she finds Donovan in the nude, in his suite. He’s pretty pissed off. OH THE JOY – then Bauhaus kicks in with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. FUCK YES, RYAN MURPHY! THANK YOU! One of my favourite songs of all time. Even if it’s not the whole song, I love hearing any of it here.
The meeting between Drake and the Countess is amazingly strange, eerie, there’s a spooky quality hovering over everything. A real foreboding sense of haunting. Especially when Drake’s son spends a few minutes with Elizabeth, she brings him to see little Holden – shit! The whole room where she takes him is undeniably unnerving, the kids in the stark white, blonde, their pale faces staring off, it’s all madness. Wonderful madness.
Countess Elizabeth: “Messes are always forgiven. The first time.”
So what’s the connection between Iris and Donovan?
Little flashback to 1994. Iris watches Hypo Sally and a much different looking Donovan – sweatier, more strung out – enter the Hotel Cortez where Liz Taylor watches the front desk. Sally takes Donovan upstairs and Iris barges in – she’s looking for her son. Man, I did not expect that! Either way it’s super interesting. Back in ’94, Irish was trying hard to save her son from the dope, and there he is upstairs shooting himself full of the stuff with Sally. Now we’re seeing Iris’ problem with Sally, their sort of feud, and obviously her strong connection to Donovan, as mother and son.
SHOCKER!!! Iris pushes Sally out a window, way up in the Cortez. Incredible shot with Sally flying through the air, down to the pavement, a nice hard crack and splat in the street. Man, oh, man. And when Iris goes back to the room for Donovan, there sits the Countess: “Your boy has a jawline for days.”