American Horror Story: Hotel “Checking In” Review (Season 5 Premiere)

AHS Hotel

Ever notice how every other odd season of “American Horror Story” seems better than the even ones? Granted, I know some people loved “Asylum” and “Freak Show,” but for me, “Murder House” and “Coven” were the best of the bunch. I guess it really boils down to what you’re into. Crazy people, aliens, clown and freaks don’t really scare me, per se- if anything, I ended up feeling sorry for a lot of the denizens of those seasons, rather than unnerved by them. Granted, I wasn’t really truly scared by the other seasons, either, but when you’ve seen as many horror movies/shows as I have, it takes a village (of the damned).

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t still be entertained by something, and for me personally, “Coven” was just plain the most entertaining- not to mention funny. I suppose that people who also loved that one are on Cloud Nine with Murphy’s new show “Scream Queens,” which is basically that season, only with bitches instead of witches and an old-school slasher movie mentality. I know I’m loving it. Others not so much.

That said, for me, the scariest season of “AHS” is still the first, “Murder House.” After all, we didn’t know the formula yet, didn’t know each season was essentially going to be a reset and thus, anything could literally happen- even (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen that one) wiping out the entire cast by the end of the season.

That sense of anything-can-happen is hard to replicate, especially once you know the score, and thus, subsequent seasons have been a little less rewarding. “Coven” knocked it out of the park by adding more humor to the mix, but not everyone prefers their horror with a healthy dose of laughs, so it was kind of hit-and-miss for some. And yet, “Freak Show,” even with more of a focus on out-and-out horror, missed the mark completely for me.

Like I said, I just ended up feeling sorry for most of the people on it, not scared by them. I mean, wasn’t that sort of the point of the season- that “freaks” are people, too? Mission accomplished. Hell, I even felt sorry for the killer clown, to a certain extent. Certainly more so than for that d-bag Dandy, who was just the worst. And on a side note: enough with the singing, am I right? To paraphrase Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” “There’s no singing in horror!” (Okay, maybe in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” granted, but that’s its own animal, really, and kind of a fluke.)

AHS Hotel Lady Gaga

Which leads us to “Hotel,” which somewhat ironically, stars a pop singer, though I would be just fine with the illustrious Mrs. Gaga never singing a note, personally. Obviously, having only seen the pilot at this point, it’s impossible to cast a judgment over the entire season yet, but I gotta say: this one just feels right. Unlike any season since “Murder House,” it really seems to nail what it set out to do. Of course, we don’t entirely know what that is yet, but I’m still really digging the vibe of it overall.

One of the things I like most about Ryan Murphy, is that he rarely just outright rips stuff off, like lesser filmmakers would, but instead steals it in the best of ways, by more alluding to the feel of something than flat-out recreating it in an obvious way. For instance, a lot of “Hotel” feels very much like the vibe of “The Shining,” and yet, it’s not because it’s recreating anything specific from the movie- it’s just the feel of it, you know?

I mean, yeah, you’ve got the creepy blonde kids prowling about, a la the bloody twins of that movie; and yes, there’s a “special” room, a la Room 237 (or 217 for you King purists, God bless you all), but the stuff going on here is decidedly different than what went on in that particular hotel- it’s its own vibe, like I said.

Last I checked, for instance, in “The Shining,” there weren’t vampires (or whatever Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer are playing), zombie heroin junkies (or whatever Sarah Paulson is), a creepy albino with rotten teeth hiding in a bed mattress and another prowling about with a unicorn horn strap-on dildo raping people. Yep, that happened. “Scream Queens,” this ain’t. Although there is an alarming amount of anal talk on it for a show seemingly aimed more at teens than this one is.

That said, there are definitely a lot of echoes of other stuff in “Hotel,” and some of it is a hell of a lot less obvious than “The Shining.” I mean, duh- it’s a “haunted” hotel, what else are you going to think of first? But look a bit closer and there’s some more esoteric influences happening. For instance, even before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” started playing, I was already thinking of “The Hunger,” when Gaga and Bomer’s characters went out on the prowl for young people to feed on. (Nice use of She Wants Revenge’s “Tear You Apart,” BTW, Ryan Murphy.)

Gaga’s character, to me, seems like a mix of Catherine Deneuve from that movie; the legendary Countess Elizabeth Bathory (see also the movie “Countess Dracula,” among others) and Delphine Seyrig, of “Daughters of Darkness” fame, also somewhat inspired by the Bathory legend, along with the classic lesbian vampire tale of “Carmilla.” If so- and I can’t imagine I’m wrong about all of these influences- then there’s a pretty good chance she’s not a vampire at all, but rather someone who feeds on the blood of others to stay young.

AHS Hotel Matt Bomer

Note also that John’s son, Holden, doesn’t appear to have aged since his abduction- which, okay, maybe isn’t that strange, it only having been a few years- but then, neither has Bomer or Gaga’s characters since 1994, and that’s a damn sight longer. I think that Gaga’s character, like Deneuve’s in “The Hunger,” also has a constant companion that she keeps around until she tires of them, at which point she replaces them, and that Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) is the latest person she’s “auditioning” to be his replacement, at which point she will drop Bomer’s Donovan like a bad habit- much like the one he used to sport.

I also predict that she made Iris (Kathy Bates) a deal- she’d bring back her son for her, but in return, she would always be beholden to her, and have to do whatever she said, including helping to procure victims, as we saw her doing with the Swedish hotties. She also probably made a similar sort of deal with Sally (Sarah Paulson), or else she’d be deader than a doornail right about now. So, basically what we have is a sort of variation on “Murder House,” where anyone who dies there is stuck there eternally, like purgatory. Oh sure, they can leave for short periods of time, but they eventually find their way back there.

To that end, we have John (Wes Bentley), a cop investigating a serial killer with ties to the hotel. Sure, he seems to be living outside of it, but look at where he ended up at the end of the episode. In Room 64, no less. I think his story is more along the lines of “Angel Heart,” where he sold his soul to the devil- in this case Lady Gaga- in order to secure his child’s safety, perhaps, and it’s now time to pay the piper, only he can’t remember any of this going down. The rest of the season will be him remembering the details. It’s a distinct possibility he might be in the running for Gaga’s ongoing playmate/pet as well- the Renfield to her Dracula, as it were. (Something I imagine Gaga’s so-called “Little Monsters” would happily line up to do, as well, I imagine- which is probably why Murphy cast her, no doubt.)

AHS Hotel Dennis O'Hare

Of course, as with “Murder House,” there’s plenty of other tales to be told in the other tenants of the hotel, Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare), the maid (Mare Winningham), the other kids, the albino creatures, et al. It’s way too soon to make predictions on any of those, but that’s all I got so far. Even if all that proves to be true that I predicted, I still think it will be a fun ride, and like I said, there’s nothing Murphy likes to do more than allude to something before throwing a curveball at the audience who only think they know where it’s headed. And this is a guy who knows his horror, so I’m sure he knows exactly what he’s doing, and I only think I know where all this is headed.

For instance, another allusion was the clock signifying something crazy about to happen at precisely 2:25. Well, fans of “The Amityville Horror” know that that’s quite similar to the whole gambit in that film/book of George Lutz waking up at 3:15am almost every night. According to “Amityville” lore, that’s also when Ronald “Butch” DeFeo began his real-life killing spree of his entire family, so maybe that could be what John is trying to forget- or going to remember. Maybe his entire family is already dead, and he did it and just doesn’t know it yet. Just another possibility among many other ways this could go, in other words.

Of course, with “American Horror Story,” it’s almost always more about the journey than the destination, anyway. Murphy has a habit of setting up so many dominoes in a row, it’s hard to pay them all off without at least some of them going off-course. It’s the nature of the beast when you reach for the stars like he tends to do. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. In a time when you can’t throw a rock in theaters without hitting an inferior remake or sequel or “reboot” or “reimagining” or whatever they’re calling it this week, it’s nice to see someone at least trying to do something original.

AHS Hotel Sarah Paulson

Oh sure, as discussed, Murphy isn’t afraid of borrowing stuff left and right, but just as his use of “Hotel California”- the very definition of a song you’ve heard so many times it’s lost all meaning at this point- went a long way towards redefining that hoary old chestnut after all these years, so does Murphy dust off the old favorites and make them seem new again. And that’s my idea of “reimagining,” let me tell you.

So, I’m all for “Checking In” to this “Hotel”- but I’ll hold off judgment on whether or not I want to leave prematurely or not. It could be a nice place to visit, but you might not want to live there. For now, though, I’ll be enjoying my stay, especially if this episode was any indication of what’s in store for me during my stay. How about you?