Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Wanna Tear You Apart, or Thoughts on American Horror Story: Hotel

Golden Globe Winner Lady Gaga as The Countess

I am always surprised at how sentimental American Horror Story gets towards the end of the season.  The viewer gets beaten up, punch-drunk and blood-addled as the series progresses, amped by all the violence and nudity before the roller coaster slows down and takes one final circuit to remind you that you have grown to care about these characters and crave a fitting resolution.  More often than not, that resolution in American Horror Story involves family, in particular the family you create, whether carnival freaks, murderous ghosts or a coven of witches can be more loving and relevant than the one you were born into.
A haunted hotel is a perfect premise.  There’s literally a constant flow of new blood, with guests walking over The Shining-inspired carpeting in the lobby every evening for the supernatural and natural occupants to interact with and torment.  Plus there’s such a rich tradition in haunted hotels, both in cinema and myth.  It’s been said that hotels, along with hospitals, theaters and schools, tend to be the most haunted.  Something to do with all the traffic, the never-ending influx of people creates a nexus or a crossroads for the dead.  Or so they say.
I’ve already written at length on Lady Gaga’s languorous performance as the Vampire Countess, and how she completely distracted me from Jessica Lange’s absence.  Both actresses depict similar characters, just at different stages; from Jessica’s fading glamour to the current full bloom of Lady Gaga’s.  They’re basically playing older and younger versions of themselves.
One of the pleasures of the series as a whole is how self-referential it has become, and watching the characters from previous and perhaps future seasons interact.  As the seasons progress the stories build a pyramid, with each season, character and episode interlocking with the previous in new and intriguing ways.  American Horror Story’s greatest strength has been to craft this cohesive supernatural universe, and compel us as a viewer to participate as we look forward to our favorite actors returning in previous or new incarnations.
As a child of the 80’s American Horror Story: Hotel had the best soundtrack so far, with clever musical cues from The Human League’s Seconds, Peter Murphy’s Cuts You Up and of course no contemporary vampire show would be complete without Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus.  In fact Lady Gaga’s introduction and opening montage to Tear You Apart from She Wants Revenge sets the mood and tone of the series to perfection.  If I had to explain the series to someone, I’d show them that clip, starting from the coke-fueled sexy pre-game at the Hotel Cortez, to the outdoor midnight screening of Nosferatu at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, culminating with the murderous menage a quatre back at the Hotel Cortez.  Now that’s how you keep a relationship fresh.
Vampires were the central supernatural theme to this season.  After ghosts, aliens, zombies and witches, all we really had left was werewolves and vampires.  Although these vampires aren’t technically supernatural, it’s a blood virus that makes you hard to kill, allergic to sunlight and extends your life.
The central human horror was of course the 10 Commandments Murders and the evolution and awakening of Wes Bentley as Detective John Lowe, the troubled detective, handsome and flawed with the disturbingly prescient criminal profiles.  What was interesting to me was that although these two stories connected through the hotel, largely from the machinations of Evan Peters as James Patrick March, there were no scenes between Lady Gaga and Wes Bentley.  It’s almost as if they were in the same rooms at different times, aware of each other’s presence, but never confronting one another.
Sarah Paulson returned as Sally, the fried blonde frizzy broken grunge angel in leopard print and also the medium Billie Dean from Season 1.  You can always expect a strong performance from her but to me she will always be Lana Banana from Season 2.  This was Denis O’Hare’s best role so far as Liz Taylor sashaying gloriously down haunted hallways in her silk kimonos.  Angela Basset and Kathy Bates returned as Ramona Royale and Iris, more vampires.  They delivered excellent performances but I personally preferred them in Season 4 as Marie Laveau and Delphine LaLaurie.  I missed Taissa Farmiga and Frances Conroy, who I’ve loved since Six Feet Under, and am always happy to see Chloe Sevigny, this time as John’s wife Alex, the vampire pediatrician.
There are many other articles online that meticulously chart and plot the callbacks and connections to previous seasons; I would like to point out a couple that I haven’t seen mentioned.  And ironically, both involve redheads.  In Season 4 we have another redheaded maid with Mare Winningham as Miss Evers, eternally obsessed with her bloody sheets like Lady Macbeth, echoing back to Season 1’s Moira O’Hara as portrayed by Alexandra Breckenridge and Frances Conroy.  Also an oblique Season 1 reference I noticed while watching Will Drake’s redheaded son Lachlan idly bouncing a tennis ball in the lobby of the Cortez.  He reminded me of Troy and Bryan, the Season 1 twins who break into the Murder House and toss bang snaps at each other.

If I had to poke at Season 4 I would complain that it was set in Los Angeles, a theme and a City that was already explored to great extent in Murder House.  I would have preferred if the season had been set in New York or Philadelphia, or another haunted city on the East Coast.  Even moving the Cortez up north to San Francisco would have been more interesting for me.  But that’s a very minor criticism when you think about how upset I was over the aliens in Season 2.



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