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American Horror Story: Hotel

Fox // Unrated // October 4, 2016
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 2, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

In the realm of vampires, haunted houses, and serial killers, it's getting tougher to dig up something fresh and genuinely unsettling to put on either big or small screens. Nowadays, the vampire genre gets its thrills from low-key, thought-provoking dramas and satirical comedy, sprinkled with tastes of gore that almost seem like they're meeting obligations. Haunted-house movies have fared better, scaring up chills in the likes of The Conjuring and The Babadook, yet their refined approach toward specters looming in houses remains safely opaque and one-dimensional. And serial-killer flicks have given way to the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train variety of domestic plots, neglecting the disturbing, warped-reality motives of American Psychos and John Does. This latest installment of American Horror Story invites all manner of supernatural beings and methodical murderers into their Hotel, sinking its teeth into classic and modern outlooks in a melting pot of monstrous character studies, producing an intriguing mixed bag elevated by performances and atmosphere.

Plot matters less this time than individual vignettes of the people checking in and out of the old Los Angeles spot, the Hotel Cortez, a fictional place with a real-world inspiration: the disappearance of a woman in LA's Cecil Hotel, found a month later in a water tank on the grounds. Amid the grandiose art-deco trappings contained within the unassuming building from the street, several esoteric people have taken up permanent residence in the building, with a sharp, aggrivational older woman, Iris (Kathy Bates), manning the front desk and a charismatic transgender woman, Liz Taylor (Denis O'Hare), serving up drinks at the bar. While frizzy-haired, watery-eyed junkie Sally (Sarah Paulson) looms in the dark corners of the hotel, The Countess (Lady Gaga) and her submissive, handsome lover, Donovan (Matt Bomer)-- also Iris' son -- occupy its '80s neon-gothic penthouse. The bizarre nature of these guests becomes even more unusual, and unsettling, when it's discovered that guests who come into the hotel often don't leave ... and frequently leave a bloody mess for the maid, Hazel (Mare Winningham), to gleefully clean up.

The closest thing to a consistent, evolving plot across the entire season comes in the odyssey of the Ten-Commandments Killer, an investigation into macabre religious-themed murders that lures strung-out, alcoholic family man Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) into the building's grasp. Without his presence, there's the possibility that the cycle of gruesome killings and brooding atmosphere within the old hotel would've continued unhindered, no matter how illogical it might seem that people keep disappearing without anyone taking notice. The foundation of this season's world-building relies on crafting the surreal atmosphere of the hotel itself, whose hexagonal carpets and silhouettes standing at a distance down hallways recall the maddening purgatory of The Shining. The dimly-lit corridors, rampant woodgrain doors, and somewhat dank rooms themselves do create an uneasy feeling, a good thing since the lion's share of the season's even transpire there, but there's a detached and inert energy to the story behind Hotel -- and behind how the detective's bound to it -- that leaves the momentum hanging in the stale air.

Instead, American Horror Story: Hotel focuses on the warped attributes of the residents and what's twisted them into the people they've become, especially that of The Countess, the vampiric lord of the building who essentially has the Cortez bending to her whim. Lady Gaga brings a distinctive aura to her Countess, a less-theatrical yet slyly alluring monster who draws both men and women -- gay and straight -- into her seductive ways. Extending from her stage persona, the role allows her to show a lot of skin, flaunt plenty of couture garments, and push a few boundaries with the extent of the character's sexuality, and the musician's handling of those shifting faces of dominance can be aesthetically mesmerizing, even when her dramatic poise remains somewhat flat-lined. In that, Lady Gaga's demeanor accentuates The Countess as a villain, which explores new grounds in how she gets pleasure out of feeding off others and turning select ones into an immortal menagerie. Perhaps the show grants her too much influential power as the seductive creator of immortal beings, yet that adds to her distinctive menace, which Hotel needed.

The building looming underneath The Countess is a playground of physical and metaphysical oddities, one with dark secrets literally built into the walls by the hotel's nutty creator, James March (Evan Peters), in the '30s. At first, American Horror Story utilizes the haunted properties of the building for traditional, reasonably chilling doses of horror, pushing the boundaries for broadcast television. Skewed angles, gloomy shadows, and falsely comforting warmth from the lighting encapsulate the art-deco architecture of the hotel's ominous hallways, but it's the twisted psycho-sexual events that transpire inside the rooms themselves that can be disquieting, though Hotel makes the time-honored mistake of assuming more gore and shock-value translates to effective scares. It doesn't help that there's little creative ingenuity going on here, as Hotel derives heavy influence from David Fincher's Se7en ... and not just in the Ten-Commandments investigation, but in the hotel's everyday deaths and even in the show's Nine Inch Nails-esque title cards.

With time, Hotel settles into the macabre presence of the building by delving into gloomy reflections on the entities who are bound to the Cortez's grisly atmosphere, using its horror-themed setting for themes of dependence (both on substances and on other people), neglect, and pariahship. The synergy between doting mother Iris and flamboyant bartender Liz Taylor is responsible for a healthy chunk of the season's personality, powered by two of the anthology series' regulars: Kathy Bates transforms from sassy front-desk manager to an overburdened parent dealing with the hotel's penchant for vampirism, boosted by how Denis O'Hare embraces Liz's charismatic tolerance for the strange and unusual as one of the place's few normal "anchors". For all the bold, bizarre personas looming in the building, the enigmatic presence of Sarah Paulson's watery-eyed, woebegone drug addict Sally best integrates into the show's premise, looming like a specter in bar chairs and hotel rooms, ever projecting her disconnect with the real world.

These idiosyncratic characters and the ominous atmosphere of the Cortez itself continue to draw one's attention when the meandering and, frankly, unscary plot of American Horror Story: Hotel struggles to do so later in the season. Power struggles over ownership of the hotel and the details of John Lowe's investigation into the Ten-Commandments Killer -- as well the lingering sadness of the kidnapping of his son several years prior, propelled by his failing marriage with Alex (Chloe Sevigny) -- bleed together into a weird enough stream of events, but the writing makes the assumption that emboldened theatricality and morbidity will hide a lack of ingenuity, and that doesn't end up being the case. Hotel pulls a M. Night Shyamalan-style twist that's both outlandish and heavily foreshadowed some time before it happens, the kind of dubious development that's more "... ugh, I can't believe they went in that direction" than actual shock and awe. The repercussions of this plot reveal echo throughout roughly a third of the season, forcing Hotel to maneuver around and justify the identity of the Ten-Commandment Killer, which feasibly could've gone down several other more intriguing, credible pathways.

Befitting the tone and trajectory of this season, Hotel devotes its entire finale to an epilogue for the characters, an interesting spin on expectations that focuses on giving each of the (remaining) residents of the Cortez as much catharsis as can be mustered ... internal logic be damned. Those jonesing for a shocking horror-slanted bon voyage to this installment in the anthology will find the final episodes to be both crowd-pleasing and anticlimactic, a peculiar mix of guns-blazing gusto and frustrating ease straying further from the premise's capacity to unsettle the audience. Past demons, acceptance, even liberal touches of humor and romantics in the ending seem designed to uplift the overbearing tone that came beforehand; while that works, especially in how it cares for the more sympathetic characters throughout American Horror Story: Hotel, it's reminiscent of an overly polite front-desk receptionist smiling and checking out guests who overstayed their welcome.

The Blu-ray:

American Horror Story: Hotel rides the home-video elevator up to the Blu-ray floor in a standard three-disc, swinging-tray case, with each disc sporting differently-color graphical touches. A flat slipcase replicates the front and back artwork, while the underlying interior artwork provides a handy episode guide. A promo slip for American Horror Story: Season Six (Roanoke) can be found inside.

Video and Audio:

Fox Home Entertainment makes their Blu-ray guests feel right at home with this presentation of American Horror Story: Hotel. The vintage set design of the Cortez, Lady Gaga's dazzling garments, and the warped textures of various macabre elements lure fine details out of the 1.78:1-framed, 1080p episodes, with spattered blood and strands of hair appearing sharp and nuanced. Other scenes aren't quite as detailed, with standard wider shots of conversations appearing somewhat flattened by the digital photography. Skin tones are universally pretty compelling, though, influenced by the types of lighting present in the rooms, ranging from subtly tannish in moody hotel rooms to radiantly vivid in the Countess' neon-bathed penthouse. Vivid shades of color are equally satisfying, spanning from pink streaks in hair and bright-green absinthe to bold splashes of blood red. Black levels also run the gamut, spanning from satisfyingly balanced in the expansive lobby and brightly-lit "kids' room" to overly dark -- and, at times, noisy and wishy-washy -- in its bleak corridors and hidden places. In general, considering the material on each disc, it's a satisfying visit to the hotel in HD.

As one can probably expect from this show and the season's subject, The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are host to a lot of atmosphere creaking and echoing around the classic LA hotel. Stillness in the air and how it looms around dialogue plays a crucial role in nailing down the mood, which the surround tracks nail down with lots of clarity and precision, from Sarah Paulson's slightly scratchy vocals to Lady Gaga's smooth alto fluidity. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: there's plenty of slashing and tearing and things going (loudly) bump in the night, which the audio treatments handle with robust intensity and subtle clarity. Some of the effects are slightly suppressed and sport only moderate oomph, though, and there's less surround presence than one might expect, only occasionally letting encompassing flourishes travel to the back. Everything stays well-balanced with the eerie music, though, resulting in a fine registry of audio treatment for Hotel. English, French, and Spanish subs are available.

Special Features:

Only a pair of extras can be found across the three discs of American Horror Story: Hotel -- Disc Two doesn't have any -- starting off with An Invitation to Devil's Night (11:39, 16x9 HD). Here, director/cinematographer Michael Goi and his cast/crew delve into the two-part, Halloween-focused episodes, touching on the production design and the themes involved with the big dinner sequence and the stories of the two mothers. The other focuses on the construction of the set for the hotel, entitled The Cortez: An Era of Elegance Gone By (7:35, 16x9 HD), which mixes behind-the-scenes shots with discussions from production designer Mark Worthington and the cast/crew, chatting about the desired old-meets-new aesthetic and building the set so it can be photographed at all angles.

Final Thoughts:

American Horror Story has become a reliable macabre-themed staple over the past five years, tapping into familiar topics with its shifting anthology focus -- witches' covens, freak shows, insane asylums -- in ways that have started mainstream audiences and still held the attention of many horror aficionados out there. Hotel broadens its focus a bit, drawing together vampires and mass-murderers and other supernatural entities into a surreal melting pot: a multi-floor building comprised of timeless, moody art-deco accouterments. The season's strengths, unsurprisingly, lie within the characters and the atmospheric limbo surrounding them, underpinned by Lady Gaga's fusion of stagy and subdued theatrics and supported by a range of melancholy, yet charismatic performances from all involved. What Hotel lacks, unfortunately, is a constant narrative to propel it forward, instead relying on a pair of slow-burning stories -- a power struggle over the hotel's ownership; the hunt for the Ten-Commandments Killer -- to sustain the moving parts of the atmosphere and the characters' development. It's only moderately successful in that regard, and it doesn't distract enough from the season's overtly borrowed elements and wacky suspension of disbelief. It's still good, worthy of a mild Recommendation (especially over the right holidays), but it lacks bite.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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