Ryan Murphy, the creator of “American Horror Story” (2011 – present), has done it. He has somehow made the fifth season premiere of the popular FX horror anthology the creepiest one yet. This season is based at the Hotel Cortez, a fairly nice-looking hotel that gradually begins to unsettle all its visitors. The hotel is owned by a couple, The Countess (Lady Gaga) and Donovan (Matt Bomer). The majority of previous “American Horror Story” cast members play employees of the hotel.
In the B-plot, detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) investigates suspicious murders that all seem to be connected to the hotel. Viewers get a glimpse of his home life and discover that his son was kidnapped at a carnival without a trace. Somehow, this will connect to the goings on at the Hotel Cortez.
Viewers, including this reviewer, had some doubts about how compelling this season could be without former main star Jessica Lange. Though she was a fan favorite for the past four seasons, she announced earlier this year that she would be leaving the show. However, the additions of Bomer and Lady Gaga show tremendous promise in Lange’s absence.
For those unfamiliar with the structure of “American Horror Story,” each season tells its own separate story unrelated to those before or after it. However, each new installment more or less retains the same cast. This premiere did an excellent job of balancing development of the season’s plot and sharing with viewers — who have no idea what to expect with regard to characters or storylines — the necessary background information to understand what is happening.
The episode ends with a flashback that throws a lot of information at viewers without showing them the events connecting that to the present, leaving them eager to see the next episode so they can fill in the gaps.
“American Horror Story” has never shied away from blood and gore, but this season premiere was especially graphic. The sequence of scenes that take place after viewers are introduced to The Countess and Donovan will go down in “American Horror Story” history. The Countess and Donovan go to an outdoor movie in order to scope out potential couples to court sexually. They look fantastic dressed in black and red and have no trouble finding an eager young couple. Back at the hotel, the sexual acts begin, but after a few minutes of this, The Countess and Donovan proceed to slit the couple’s throats and bask in the blood. This fades into a scene in which the two leads lie on top of the dead couple on a blood-soaked bed. When Donovan complains about the mess, The Countess responds simply by telling him to call housekeeping. From this scene alone, it is clear that the diabolical chemistry between The Countess and Donovan will make them compelling — albeit terrifying — characters in the coming season.
Other striking aspects of this premiere were the cinematography and sound design. When the camera first enters Hotel Cortez, the scene looks as though it’s in a fishbowl, making for unusual, unique shapes on the screen. This unique aptitude for making viewers feel uncomfortable and on-edge is what makes “American Horror Story” so impressive. The music is eerie, and the show often cuts quickly between shaky visuals and alien-sounding noises to disorient the viewer. This premiere was focused on scaring viewers more through tension and buildup than with make-you-jump-in-your-seat moments, a strategy that proved quite effective.
At this point, the talented and harmonious main cast is accustomed to playing different characters and adjusting as necessary. In general, “American Horror Story” has improved markedly since its first season, bringing innovative ideas to set each season apart from the others. This season promises to continue in that vein.