Ryan Murphy has become a master of marketing through concept and casting, nowhere more so than in the “American Horror Story” franchise. Yet the latest edition of the FX series, subtitled “Hotel,” outdoes itself on that score by adding Lady Gaga to its high-profile repertory company, where the mantra seems to be, “The scenery’s free; eat all you can chew.” Gaga delivers only a few clipped lines of dialogue, but who cares? She’s gloriously photographed, in a venue where strands-of-hair placement are vital, plot scarcely matters, and sensual pleasures invariably go hand in hand with buckets of blood.
The opening credits incorporate the 10 Commandments into the visuals, which is interesting, given what a sizable debt this project owes to Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.” Granted, there’s a fine line between homage and heist, but at the very least, Murphy (who directed the 90-minute premiere, co-written with collaborator Brad Falchuk) should be grateful that “Thou Shalt Not Steal” doesn’t specifically address the propriety of liberal borrowing.
Filled with arresting imagery, much of the action takes place in a beyond-creepy L.A. hotel, beginning with a couple of beautiful European tourists who make the mistake of booking online — and not checking the distance from Universal Studios. The long, sloping hallways include weird sounds and images and spectral tykes, to the point where all that’s missing is a kid racing around on a tricycle.
Of course, getting to one of the rooms requires dealing with a not-very-helpful desk clerk (Kathy Bates, naturally) and her sidekick, played by Denis O’Hare, who goes by the name Liz Taylor. The strange doings at the hotel, and an anonymous phone call, bring unwanted attention from a local detective (Wes Bentley). Not surprisingly, he’s haunted by his past.
As for Gaga, she spends much of her time with the equally striking Matt Bomer, and the two are introduced via a wordless sequence in which they lure a young couple back to the hotel, where the duo resides. In keeping with “American Horror Story’s” habit of sexualizing violence, and vice versa, suffice it to say that nobody should expect to get their security deposit back.
At the heart of “American Horror Story” is an obvious love of movies, as well as a clear desire, tinged with naughtiness, to push boundaries as far as FX’s “Oh what’s the use?” censors will allow. That said, there’s almost an indifference to story — after the premiere, it’s hard to see a huge motivation to watch in order to unlock the show’s lingering mysteries — while luxuriating in an atmosphere that, among other things, includes particularly appropriate use of a certain Eagles song.
Whatever the shortcomings, the extraordinarily well-timed addition of Gaga to the mix should render any naysaying moot, practically speaking, establishing this as a sort-of event that plenty of people will feel obligated to check out (or in). Viewed that way, Gaga’s primary role is to help bait the hook, at one point describing the hotel to an outsider by purring, “Maybe this place is special.”
In the grand scheme of things — and especially the context of the previous “AHS” editions — it’s really not. But as is so often the case, if your party can assemble the right guest list, it doesn’t really matter how the conversation goes after that.