Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “American Horror Story: Hotel” episode 1, “Checking In.”
If there was any series that didn’t need to up the ante, it was “American Horror Story.” And yet, “Hotel” shows that the previous seasons were hardly the horror anthology at full throttle, boasting not only a glossy new star in Lady Gaga, but more sex, guts and terror than even the show’s darkest moments.
“Hotel” immediately ditches the fear of outsiders that served as the catalyst for “Freak Show,” harkening back to the claustrophobia of “Murder House” and clearly taking cues from another hotel horror, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” in influences that can be seen right in the first scene. The premiere opens with two young, beautiful, foreign women being dropped off at the Hotel Cortez in Downtown Los Angeles. They’re quickly disappointed when their cab driver tells them Universal Studios is nowhere near the hotel, or really, any of the other attractions they expected to stop by in their sightseeing (and obviously, this is to become the least of their worries).
When they enter the hotel — a gorgeous, sprawling, classic building — viewers meet their first familiar face in Kathy Bates, playing Iris, a role that probably gave Bates a little more room to play around than her bearded carny in “Freak Show” or her immortal racist in “Coven.” After some buildup, the scene climaxes in the women’s room, when, after detecting an awful stench, the girls rip open the mattress, allowing some sort of bloody humanoid creature to emerge for the first real scare of the season (and before the opening credits, even!).
Before you can say “Why the heck wouldn’t they just leave now?,” Iris explains: they would get arrested for failing to answer police questions, though one thinks some may have taken that risk. They’re led to a mysterious Room 64, which is apparently never rented out and where one of the women is later horrified to find a couple of children chowing down on the other.
Cut to a visually different, but tonally similar scene: Detective John Lowe, played by a stoic Wes Bentley, investigates a gruesome murder. A naked dead woman still sits on the man with whom she was having sex, a spear through her. The man, receiving an even crueler fate, lies on the bed with his hands nailed to the bedpost and — get ready to cringe! — his tongue cut out and eyed gouged out, left in an ashtray neatly for investigators. As if that isn’t enough, he, unlike the woman, is still alive, begging for help in a “world of hurt,” as one of the detectives puts it. And, if that isn’t enough, he’s still inside the woman, and will have to be removed from the corpse at a hospital.
Interestingly, the two were married, though not to each other. It’s hard not to think of the 10 Commandments referenced in the season’s opening credits at this point, including “thou shalt not commit adultery.” There is, in fact, a so-called 10 Commandments Killer, it was revealed before the season premiered, and it looks like this is its debut. As Lowe points out, the killer was trying to say that the families were blind to the crimes — and now, the victim is simply blind.
As for Lowe,not only is he a very intelligent detective, but a family man as well. He turns down an important call at the office to read his daughter a bedtime story via Facetime. After that, though, he gets an anonymous phone call with a voice that garners callbacks to “Scream,” which tells him that the caller is the killer and he’s going to do it again — at the Hotel Cortez.
Meanwhile, Max Greenfield’s character, Gabriel, stops by the hotel for a quick drug fix. Once he’s high, he gets an extremely rude awakening by a person (?) armed with a drill-bit dildo, who proceeds to rape him until Sarah Paulson’s Hypodermic Sally tells Gabriel to tell her that he loves her — only then does the creature relent. In a season where everyone’s addicted to something, Sally’s addiction seems obvious: Love.
When Lowe inevitably visits, Iris isn’t phased, despite Lowe’s questions about the room where someone is currently being sexually tortured. She immediately recognizes him as law enforcement, admitting that it’s not her first run-in with the law, and sends hotel worker Liz Taylor, played by “AHS” veteran Denis O’Hare, to show him Room 64. Not finding anything too exciting, he takes a nap, only to be awoken by a child who runs from him, later revealed to be his son in a sad twist of events.
When we’re finally introduced to Lady Gaga’s the Countess, it’s without much dialogue — though the scene doesn’t need it. She (in all-out glamour) brings Matt Bomer’s Donovan character, who seems much more her pet than her lover, to a movie showing at a cemetery, where they promptly seduce a young couple into going back to the Hotel Cortez with them. This kicks off the much-hyped foursome scene, pushing the limits on basic-cable standards, not only for its sexual content but for the violence that ensues. Mid-coitus, the Countess and Donovan lunge at the necks of the two innocent people, spilling blood everywhere and leading the Countess to later quip, “And you didn’t want to go out tonight.”
In case you forgot about the two women we met at the top of the episode, we see Iris force feeding them a disgusting blend of meat as they’re trapped, standing up, in cage-like contraptions (and seeing Bates standing in front of them evokes memories of similar imagery in “Coven”). Sally, though, encourages Iris to “show some compassion.” Iris leaves Sally to watch over them, a mistake, as Sally lets one out to run for freedom. Unfortunately for her, she encounters the Countess, who promptly slits her throat.
In between all of this, we get some backstory, not only on those who live in the hotel but Detective Lowe as well. Iris is hardly at the hotel by choice, but because her son Donovan was lured there by Sally to get a heroin fix, later seemingly trapped by the Countess, who may be attracted to lost souls looking for a leader. And Lowe’s is a tragic tale: he and his wife, played by Chloe Sevigny, lost their young son at a carnival and have yet to find him. Later in the episode, after Lowe unwittingly traumatizes his daughter by bringing her to a gruesome crime scene, he’s forced to leave the house and chooses to stay at the Hotel Cortez. Of course, this could be because of his ongoing investigation — but it’s likely due to the fact that’s he drawn there because of the sighting of his son.
Near the end of the episode, Will Drake, played by Cheyenne Jackson, enters the scene. He’s apparently buying the hotel, which, of all things, strikes fear into the hotel residents. Drake almost seems a cliche — a designer who, wildly successful but uninspired by New York life, moves to Los Angeles to get his creative juices flowing. He also has a young son, who is led by the Countess to a room where children are kept, distracted by candy and video games — and it’s where Lowe’s missing son is.
And this, really, is where the real horror of the season may lie. Not only in the gore and sexual violence, but perhaps more so, in the fates of these children. While one is traumatized, another is held in a strange missing-child sanctuary, where children play games and feast on hotel-goers. It’s a place “American Horror Story” has yet to go to, but it’s not shying away.