With intensely pseudo self-awareness, a deliberately impervious approach to political and social issues, and a cinematographic style tailor-made to prompt aesthetes to question their sanity, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are at their most unbridled in their neo-camp American Horror Story. Structured as an anthology, the series is stuffed with as many returning players each season as it is with tropes, clichés, and shallow dialogue. The Murphy-Falchuk brand is its own form of authorship, and it might be best exemplified by its employment of actresses, or better yet, icons—from Jessica Lange to Kathy Bates to, with the new American Horror Story: Hotel, Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga, née Stefani Germanotta, is herself a self-consciously constructed brand, and as such of a piece with this universe. Her inclusion in Hotel might be the most “American” thing to happen to American Horror Story, as both the singer and series are amalgamations of existing ideas, people, places, and things reappropriated to create something (allegedly) new. Both are bent on corrupting, deconstructing, or burning nostalgia to its core, to varying degrees of success. Both have created distinctive identities for themselves—ones that proclaim to be malleable, but in reality still have a rigidity to them. With each new incarnation, both Gaga and American Horror Story try to reinvent themselves, but remain, at their core, the same.
Given how Gaga’s iconography is perpetually framed, both fairly and not, in comparison to Madonna’s, it’s another stroke of self-awareness that she headlines a series that prides itself on its hoary sense of cultural reappropriation. With scattershot vigor, American Horror Story roots through pop culture old and new to borrow images, sounds, and tropes, from Poltergeist to Under the Skin, in ways that don’t always transcend imitation. Unsurprisingly, then, Hotel starts off on shaky ground, with Murphy barely disguising his slavishly uncommented-upon recycling of shots from Vertigo and The Shining beneath his signature, nauseating fetish for the fish-eye lens.
When a grotesque body climbs out from inside a bed in the premiere episode’s pre-credits sequence, there’s a spark of something the series could tap into inasmuch as exploiting viewers’ nightmares. Once the episode gets away from the derivative and into the show’s trademark mix of weird and fun, like this body in the bed, it keys into a potential to explore the mysteries of the hotel, and scares that feel fresh. But following the opening credits, the series devolves into a more conventional narrative, where a cop, John Lowe (Wes Bentley), investigates a crime scene elsewhere, leading to a man whose tongue and eyeballs have been removed while the body of a woman sits atop him, her hands nailed to the wall. He’s “still inside her,” Lowe notes (cf. Se7en, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal). Then the cop gets an eerie phone call, inviting him to the Hotel Cortez, taunting him that there’ll be another murder (cf. Zodiac, Scream). That American Horror Story is weaving an ostensibly standard procedural into the series is only intriguing in that it’s the most “normal” thing the writers have ever done.
The series is relatively unique given its format as an anthology: The goal of the first episode is to entice the audience at whatever cost. And each season, someone behind the scenes explicitly says the series is reinventing itself via new cast members, old cast members doing new things, and new settings, but retaining the same technical strategies. Reinvention has its limits, and American Horror Story has never really reinvented itself beyond the kitschy, campy, sometimes sorta-scary brand it’d already tapped into. Hotel only begins to work when there’s a sense of authorial intent on Gaga’s part, where she’s in as much control of ideology and style as the showrunners.
Gaga checks into the series as a vampire, in a set piece that grooves, awesomely, like an old Billy Idol or George Michael music video and culminates, less awesomely, in an orgy with everyone’s bits and pieces comically blocked from view. With Murnau’s Nosferatu playing in the background of a graveyard movie showing, and Matt Bomer’s man candy by her side, she stares into the camera, and at her nearby victims, with a gaze so penetrating it’s worthy of Lange. Given her enormous persona, the subtlety and duality Gaga brings to her role as the Countess comes almost as a shock. Her line readings have an amusing quality in that she’s aware of the inherent hokiness of the series, yet committed to it all the same. She purrs like no other American Horror Story cast member has, turning the arch dialogue into something spellbinding, maybe even sexy.
Best of the returning actors is Sarah Paulson, who plays Hypodermic Sally, a pretty blunt and ungenerously literal manifestation of addiction and the decay of Los Angeles and fame in general. Even in the first episode, Sally is already broadly drawn. “Tell me you love me,” she whispers to a junkie, Gabriel (Max Greenfield), as he’s being raped by a demon wearing a drill-bit strap-on. This incredibly graphic rape scene is probably one of American Horror Story’s most offensive moments, as its purpose is less contingent on metaphor or emotional gravitas than on mere provocation. That the ghoul and Sally seem to have a symbiotic relationship as unsubtle projections of heroin addiction almost entirely undermines the impressiveness of Paulson’s performance. But as she looks into Gabriel’s eyes, tears cascading down her face, the actress exhibits a special gravitational pull.
More interesting than its tepid attempts at horror, and its even lousier ones at humor, is that American Horror Story is examining history through subjective perspective, art, architecture, and so on. New Yorker Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) buys the Hotel Cortez, bemoaning the loss of culture in the city. It’s a tired romanticizing of New York, but, for once, the series can match that with its own satirical take, and consider that romanticism with insight into the idealization of memory and history.
Part of the DNA of the series is finding grains of America’s weird past, whether it be haunted houses or freak shows, and simultaneously trying to upend the presentation of those artifacts while lovingly romanticizing them. Maybe that’s the best thing American Horror Story has ever done. Drake rhapsodizes about an Arik Levy sculpture, cooing, “There’s energy here. I walk through New York streets and I don’t hear the music anymore. No more echoes of what was there. Blocks toppled, history erased, weirdos banished.” But that attachment to nostalgia is just what the Countess, and Hotel in turn, wants to destroy.