American Horror Story: Hotel “Flicker” Review (Season 5 Episode 7)

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As we head into what is more or less the halfway mark of the season, I felt it was high time for a check-in with “American Horror Story: Hotel,” now that, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve officially met all of the denizens of the place and gotten the gist of all of their back-stories.

With the latest episode, “Flicker” we met what may well be the final major characters, and is sometimes the wont of the show, they are indeed grounded in reality- indeed, one of them was no less a personality than the legendary silent era film star Rudolph Valentino, cleverly played by recently departed cast member Finn Wittrock, which, of course, goes a long way towards explaining why the Countess (Lady Gaga) not only was attracted to his shallow-but-handsome doppelganger Tristan Duffy, but was so upset when he betrayed her with Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare).

Tristan’s death was the first major one, and though he had admittedly only just started to be fleshed out as a character we cared about in the first place, and was, up until then, a raging douche-bag, what made his death significant had less to do with him personally and all to do with arguably the best character on the show, period: Liz. O’Hare has been having so much fun with the role this season and his character was easily the most likable on the show, so seeing his fiercely loyal Liz betrayed, seemingly so coldly by her beloved Countess was truly a heartbreaker.

However, decidedly less expected was the why, which we got this week. It also shows that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk put some thought into things this season, managing to avoid the all-over-the-place, kitchen-sink quality of certain seasons, notably “Asylum.” Not to say that I didn’t enjoy that season, just that certain elements often came out of nowhere in that particular season, i.e. the alien thing, for instance.

Of course, as with most seasons, it takes a hot minute to gather one’s bearings and figure out what the hell is going on in the first place, which is, to me, actually a good thing. We should be disconcerted and taken aback by what we’re seeing on a show like this, or it wouldn’t work in the first place, and few in modern horror are better at unsettling a viewer quite like Murphy and Falchuk, on the small screen, let alone the big one. Those two certainly know how to push a viewer’s buttons, no matter what they might be. Sooner or later, they’ll find something that gets you, count on it, and when they do…good luck sleeping that night.

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Cleverly, the show often grounds what we’re seeing in familiar tropes and allusions to past horror favorites, with the most obvious here being “The Shining” (the hotel itself), serial killer dramas like “Se7en” and “Zodiac” (the Ten Commandments Killer, plus the wonderfully-daft “Devil’s Night” episode with the gathering of all the famed deceased serial killers), vampire tales like “The Hunger,” “Daughters of Darkness” and “Nosferatu” (Gaga’s character and her various minions/offspring, tonight’s flashback) and the whole creepy kids thing, a la “Children/Village of the Damned,” “The Bad Seed,” “The Children” and so forth.

The other big influences are real-life inspirations, such as the aforementioned Valentino and a rogues’ gallery of serial killers, which this season have included a laundry list of “big names,” as it were, such as Richard Ramirez (aka “The Night Stalker,” played by Anthony Ruivivar), Aileen Wuornos (effectively played by show regular Lily Rabe, giving Charlize a run for her Oscar), John Wayne Gacy (John Carroll Lynch, in a clever nod to his “Twisty” of last season), Jeffrey Dahmer (Seth Gabel), the “Zodiac Killer,” the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and, in the main centerpiece of the season, H.H. Holmes, here portrayed as the more fictionalized James March (Evan Peters, in his best role-and performance- on the show to date, by far).

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I just love the way the show mixes in these real-life inspirations with its cinematic influences, especially in the flashbacks, which often adopt the stylistic schemes of their times. For instance, earlier this season, we got a fantastic Blaxsploitation homage via Angela Bassett’s fierce Ramona Royale character, which was shot in the sickly, gritty color of the 70’s era, while on the latest episode, we got a homage to the silent film era, complete with a “shrinking” camera effect and nods to “Nosferatu” and “The Sheik.”

“Flicker” also gave us our first glimpse of a pre-vampire Countess, with her character seemingly inspired by Pola Negri, an actress who claimed to have been engaged to Valentino at the time of his death. We discovered that Valentino himself was a vampire, having been turned by none other than director F.W. Murnau, the real-life auteur behind the classic “Nosferatu,” who accurately predicted that “Talkies” were going to kill off silent films, and likely leave the foreign Valentino without a career.

Having discovered the key to immortality in his research on the classic film, he wanted to pay it forward by offering the “gift” to Valentino, with the catch that he would have to fake his death in the process. Valentino, in turn, passed it along to his other lover, Natacha Rambova (new recruit Alexandra Daddario, of “True Detective” fame), and, one assumes, eventually the Countess, though we never actually see that, so it might not be one of them, actually.

(Incidentally, lest you think Murphy and co. were just playing fast and loose with certain facts, it was widely acknowledged that Rambova and Negri might have been gay and/or bisexual, along with Valentino himself, so there is some historical precedent for all this, despite the liberties taken with some of the “facts.”)

Perhaps, after March walled Valentino and Rambova up in a wing of the hotel to rot, the Countess sought out what happened to them and discovered Murnau and he turned her himself. We’ll just have to wait and see on that one, I suppose, but when we last see her in the past, she’s being stood up by the two at a train station, so it’s entirely possible they hadn’t turned her yet, and that part is yet to come.

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We also discover that she didn’t know what actually happened to the couple until the present, as March finally came clean about it, as the proverbial cats were out of the bag, what with the wing recently reopened by Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) in the process of remodeling the hotel. The episode ended with Valentino and Rambova, after having fed on various guests of the hotel- including “Murder House” realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook) – finally exiting the hotel for the first time in decades.

Speaking of “Murder House,” we also got some other cool connections to that first season, notably the Countess paying a visit to the house itself, circa the era of the Montgomerys, who many have posited are somehow related to Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), of “Coven” fame. We saw the Countess pay a visit to Charles (Matt Ross) to obtain an abortion, only to have it go WAY south and the resulting “baby” being born in the process, despite the Countess claiming to only be three weeks pregnant.

This episode, “Room 33,” was clearly inspired by the classic 70’s shocker “It’s Alive,” as the infant- or should I say “Infantata”? As with that film, no sooner was the monstrous baby born than it was killing off folks, with the Countess opting, for some reason to embrace the “little monster” (see what they did there?) and raise it as her own anyway, despite her initial intentions. In that episode, little Bart decided to do a little sightseeing and hitched a ride in the suitcase of John Lowe (Wes Bentley)- shades of “Basket Case”– later terrorizing Lowe in his home and causing daughter Scarlett (Shree Crooks) to think he was out of his gourd, which he may well be.

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Indeed, in most fans’ eyes, its Lowe himself who might be the Ten Commandments Killer, which, if true, I totally called back in my initial review of the show, after picking up on the similarities between his character and that of Mickey Rourke’s in the similar classic “Angel Heart.” Part of me wants it to be someone else, simply because it was so obvious, but even if it is, I can live with it, as it was well-handled, regardless.

That said, that was an interesting bit of business with little Wren (Jessica Belkin), who John broke out of the institutional wing of the hospital he intentionally had himself committed to, in order to check out the potential suspect the cops had stashed there. Instead, he found Wren, who readily admitted being a willing participant in the killer’s crimes, having even gone so far as to kill the security guard in the church killing.

However, the interesting part of all this wasn’t that, but rather, the fact that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Wren before. Yep, she has been on the show before, as a “Vampire Girl,” aka one of the Countesses little charges she’s been collecting over the years. Could that mean that the Countess is actually the killer? Probably not, given the killer’s methods- the Countess tends to slash, drink and run, not get all metaphorical with it. I’m still betting that it’s Lowe, though it would be just like the show to throw us a curveball at the last minute.

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Another subplot the show has yet to return to is the one involving the other vampire kids, the ones John’s wife Alex (Chloë Sevigny) unwittingly set in motion when she willingly infected Max (Anton Starkman) with the vampire virus to save his life after his clueless anti-vaccination mother (Mädchen Amick) nearly killed him, in “Room Service.” It worked, but then he promptly killed his mother and went to school and infected his entire class, turning them all into vampires that went on to slaughter all of the adults in school!

One assumes that, given that the kids blamed it all on a masked man, and then subsequently went home with their parents, that they continued their rampages individually, likely setting off a series of mass murders in the process, though we have yet to be updated on that one. If there’s one big flaw in the show, it’s that it often has so many balls in the air, it’s hard to do justice to all of them.

Indeed, oftentimes certain subplots fall by the wayside completely, never to be returned to again. I’m hoping this won’t be one of them, as it shows real promise, with the middle school massacre sequence being among one the more unnerving things to ever happen on the show.

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That said, arguably the most useless character this season has been Alex, whose behavior is completely perplexing nearly every step of the way. I don’t know if its Sevigny’s disaffected portrayal of the character, or the writers’ conception of her, or a little of both, but she just annoys me to no end. Her actions often make no sense whatsoever, and her relationship with her son, Holden (Lennon Henry) is creepy in all the wrong ways, to say the least.

I mean, I get that she wanted to save poor Max, but she knows good and well what the repercussions of the virus were, so what did she think was going to happen? Granted, to the best of our knowledge, she doesn’t even know yet herself, but still, what was she thinking? Factor in her flat-out repulsive treatment of her husband- if he is the killer, no wonder, she probably drove him to madness herself!

Remember the scene where she told the Swedish meatballs outright to go and mess with his head on purpose? What the hell was the reasoning behind that? For someone who claims she didn’t “blame” her husband for the disappearance of their child, she sure does screw with him at nearly every turn. I don’t get it, and I don’t get her. The sooner she bites it, the better, IMHO, and I hope it’s her own son that does it, because it would serve her right after all she’s done. Ugh. I just can’t even.

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On other fronts, I do like what’s been done with Iris (Kathy Bates), who has gotten a lot more interesting since her son Donovan (Matt Bomer) turned her into one of the vampires after she attempted suicide. Speaking of characters whose motivations don’t make sense, I get why her son didn’t realize what he’d be missing until the last minute, being as how Liz gave him the “mother” of all guilt complexes just before he did so, but what to do with Donovan’s actions since?

Ever since doing so, he’s gone back to treating his mother with complete derision, though, to her credit, she doesn’t seem to care as much anymore, instead embracing her inner psycho bitch, to amusing effect. (Loved the scene where she came loaded for bear to help Ramona to take out the Countess’ vamp kiddies.) Consistency is clearly not the writers’ strong suit on this show, to say the least. That’s a shame, because when they get it right, they really do a bang-up job.

To that end, Gaga has surprisingly been killing it as the Countess, more than rising to the occasion of all that’s been asked of her, and they’ve been asking quite a bit, what with all the flashbacks and character changes and arcs. But she’s been rolling with the changes like it ain’t no thing, and I’m loving it. I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if the performance nabs her at least an Emmy or Golden Globe nomination, if not a win. Jessica Lange, eat your heart out!

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Although, that said, the real contender here in that department is undeniably Denis O’Hare, never better than he’s been here as Liz Taylor. Sure, it’s a knowingly timely role, what with the whole Caitlyn Jenner business, but Liz has more fabulousity in her pinkie toe than Jenner has in his entire body. (I can’t imagine the LGBT was thrilled when Jenner came out on “Ellen” as being against gay marriage, for instance.)

Granted, it was slightly confusing when, after distinctly stating she wasn’t gay, Liz ended up with Tristan, but O’Hare went a long way towards selling it when he said it wasn’t gay because, in spirit, if not in body, he was a woman. Oddly, this made perfect sense to me, despite the oft-confusing terminology us cisgenders have to wade through trying to understand all this. (That’s the correct word, right? I don’t even know anymore, lol.)

Slightly more confusing- which is saying something on this show- is the whole Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) character. I get that she’s not a vampire, per se, but more of a ghost, but it also seems like she’s sort of a metaphor as well, with her minion the Drilldo, as I’ve taken to calling him, being sort of the representation of addiction itself, or the pain of it. Or maybe she’s the addiction and he’s the toll it takes on the life of an addict. Or something. To be honest, I’m just not sure one way or another, but as per usual, Paulson is in top form, managing to be both repulsive and appealing at the same time- no mean feat, that.

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I think that about covers the state of the show at the essential mid-point, and as far as I’m concerned, so good so far, for the most part. Yes, the show has its faults, but it always has. The important thing is, it might be out there, but it’s certainly never boring. What it lacks in actual scares, it more than makes up for in being genuinely disturbing at times. Certain things just stick with you, and, as aforementioned, if one thing doesn’t stick, you can be sure something eventually will.

You gotta love that about the show, and as far as I’m concerned, even when they’re off the mark, I’d be fine with the show continuing to run ad infinitum, or at least until they’ve covered all the big horror tropes. After all, if one season doesn’t do it for you, there’s a good chance the next one will. Eventually, the show is literally going to have something for everyone, or at least every horror fan. Others need not apply, obviously, as this is not a show for the faint of heart.

So, what do you think of the show thus far? Do you like it better than last season? How does it rank amongst the other seasons for you so far, on the whole? Do you think Lady Gaga is doing a good job with what’s she’s been given? Or is she not making the cut for you? How about the other characters? Do you have a favorite? Or a least favorite? Who do you think the Ten Commandments Killer is, if it isn’t John? Just what the hell is up with Alex? Who do you think will be left standing in the end, if anyone? Do you think there will be more connections to past seasons? Sound off on this and more down below, and see you later on in the season!