Check in to the fifth season of the deliciously diabolical series from creators Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk, starring a killer cast that includes Lady Gaga – in her Golden Globe-winning role as The Countess – along with Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Matt Bomer, Denis O'Hare and Sarah Paulson. A string of grisly murders is traced back to the sinister, sensuous Countess (Gaga), an infamous resident of the stylish Hotel Cortez in Downtown Los Angeles. American Horror Story: Hotel is a visually stunning, visceral feast. Explore the hidden corridors of this fiendishly entertaining show, and go gaga over Lady Gaga and all of the exclusive extras on Blu-ray.
Tight structure, clear plotting, and consistent character arcs are common building blocks for many successful TV shows. But not 'American Horror Story.' Not by a long shot. Instead of adhering to traditional storytelling rhythms, the bloody anthology series often goes out of its way to avoid any semblance of conventional narrative construction. And at its best, this unbridled style has resulted in some truly unique and appropriately maddening small-screen terror -- mixing and mashing genre insanity into spine-tingling tales about murderous clowns, haunted houses, and unsettling asylums. But, at its worst, this same style can also result in a complete and utter mess. Sadly, with its fifth season, dubbed 'Hotel,' the show strays pretty far from its best.
Primarily set in present day Los Angeles, the season focuses on the creepy Hotel Cortez. When a series of murders leads back to the hotel, Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) checks into the haunted establishment hoping to find the killer. Meanwhile, the Cortez's primary resident, The Countess (Lady Gaga), plots to keep the building from falling into the hands of a new owner. With the hotel's fate and John's sanity hanging in the balance, more and more bodies begin to pile up.
First impressions are very important. And when it comes to first impressions, the introductory episode of 'Hotel' simply left a bad taste in my mouth –- one that managed to linger throughout the remaining installments. Though the series is infamous for its graphic and gleefully horrific imagery, this season veers a little too far into gratuitous carnage. The first episode, in particular, layers several gory and excessively disturbing scenes upon one another without ever backing them up with any narrative or emotional weight -- including a wholly unnecessary rape sequence that ultimately serves no purpose.
Of course, this is first and foremost a horror series (it's right there in the title, after all), so some level of gory terror is expected and downright required, but the filmmakers make a poor decision in the first episode by presenting an abundance of carnage before establishing any of the characters. For too much of the initial runtime, we just watch people we don't know yet brutally kill other seemingly innocent people we don't know, and since there's no emotional investment on either side, it all just comes across as distressingly empty and mean-spirited.
Thankfully, the writers end up doing a decent job of fleshing out the majority of the ensemble as the season goes on, but this disturbingly shallow undercurrent informs too much of the show's excessive violence. Likewise, the increasingly sloppy narrative that propels all that violence proves to be even more problematic. Soapy melodrama is mixed in with campy terror and more serious attempts at horror, leading to a rather manic tone that makes past seasons seem cohesive by comparison. The series has always had issues in this regard, but here different scenes within single episodes often feel like they've come from completely different shows.
Characterizations are also frustratingly inconsistent, switching up motivations and personalities to suit the haphazard plot as allegiances move back and forth at the drop of a hat. Kathy Bates' Iris is especially baffling in this regard, and it seems like the writers really had no idea how they wanted her character to act. At the end of the day, the show never really seems to know what it wants to be or what it wants to be about, right down to the treatment of the hotel itself -- which fluctuates between coming across like a sparsely booked haunted nightmare and... a regular hotel with a healthy assortment of ordinary guests. And to make matters worse, the main murder mystery eventually resolves itself with a lame twist that is disappointingly predictable and forced.
With all that said, 'Hotel' definitely still has its effectively creepy and emotionally resonant moments along with a consistently powerful visual style, leading to a few strong episodes and arcs that end up elevating the hodgepodge that doesn't work as well. Halloween episodes are usually a highlight for any 'American Horror Story' season, and this year proves to be no different, offering a darkly creative dinner party with some of contemporary history's most infamous serial killers. Likewise, isolated flashbacks that fill us in on different characters' backstories are often quite compelling.
And speaking of characters, while the writing might be lacking, most of the performances are quite strong. As the first season not to feature series star Jessica Lange, the rest of the ensemble does a nice job of filling in the void left by her absence. Franchise newcomer, Lady Gaga, carries herself with sinister charisma as the vampiric Countess, though she seems to evoke a faint accent in some scenes that mysteriously disappears in others. The real standouts this season, however, are Evan Peters and Denis O'Hare. As the ghostly serial killer James Patrick March, Peters carefully chews up the scenery, crafting a diabolical 1920s monster of a man cast in a faintly Ayn Randian mold.
Meanwhile, O'Hare ends up becoming the beating heart of the season, creating the show's most (or perhaps only) truly sympathetic and compassionate character. As the hotel's transgender bartender, Liz Taylor, the actor imbues the role with effortless depth and nuance, making Liz feel like a genuinely real, complex, and relatable person -- which is no easy task when you're surrounded by ghosts, murderers, and vampires.
A sloppy mishmash of soapy trash, gratuitous gore, meandering plots, interesting performances, moody visuals, and twisted sentimentality, 'Hotel' offers a frustratingly manic and uneven season of television. And while that all might sound like par for the course when it comes to 'American Horror Story,' this batch of episodes lacks much of the emotional core and thematic meat that makes the series' best seasons so good. In other words, despite the impressive turndown service (blood stains are very hard to get out), I'd rather check into a murder house or asylum any day.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox brings 'American Horror Story: Hotel' to Blu-ray in a 3-disc set packaged in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. All twelve episodes are spread over three BD-50 discs. After some skippable trailers the discs transition to standard menus. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A coded.
The show is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Though a bit uneven and occasionally lacking, this is an intentionally stylized and appropriately creepy video presentation.
The source is in good shape, but there are signs of noise in darker aspects of the image and grain fluctuates a bit depending on the scene and time period. Overall clarity is solid, though most scenes set in the hotel (the brunt of the runtime) feature a fairly soft look that lacks fine texture, especially in wider shots. With that said, the show's detailed production design is still readily visible, helping to give (undead) life to the creepy hotel and its many dusty rooms. The color palette mostly veers toward a slightly washed out yet appropriately dreary aesthetic, emphasizing the old, grungy quality of the Cortez with dark, dirty hues. Of course, certain colors and costumes still manage to pop, including blood red (a trademark for the series) and all of Gaga's memorable wardrobe choices. Contrast is also on the dim side, offering a comparatively muted style. Blacks are mostly deep, but shadow delineation can appear a little elevated and murky in certain scenes. With all that said, the show offers sometimes radically different contrast levels, detail, and colors depending upon the time period, providing distinct looks for flashbacks and other locations.
Marked by an intentionally dreary yet noticeable soft image in the hotel scenes, and sometimes wild deviations in detail and style in various flashbacks, the video transfer offers a solid but inconsistent experience.
The series is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and optional English SDH, French, German, and Spanish subtitles. While the mix can perk up here and there, this is a fairly front-loaded track that isn't always as immersive as it could be.
Dialogue is clear and well prioritized with no balance or quality issues. The soundstage offers a mixture of delicately creepy ambiance and more aggressive cues, effectively conveying the hotel's dark and foreboding atmosphere. With that said, general surround activity is often a bit too subtle for my tastes, relegating most rear activity to soft echoes of atmospherics and music. There are a few key effects, however, that provide more overt directionality and surround use (like a helicopter), but a bit more activity would have made the mix more enveloping. Thankfully, dynamic range is wide, giving the show's occasional jump-scare music cues ample room to breathe with strong LFE.
'American Horror Story: Hotel' sounds pretty good on Blu-ray, but for such an ostensibly creepy setting, the sound design could have been a little more engaging.
Fox has included a slim collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes. All of the extras are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.
'American Horror Story: Hotel' offers a disappointingly messy and gratuitous season of bloody thrills and haunted terror. Some elements of the show can be engaging, but the scripting is often very problematic. Video and audio are both solid, though the image is a bit uneven and the mix isn't quite as enveloping as it could be. Sadly, we only get two brief supplements. As the weakest season of the series so far, this is a release that will only appeal to big fans.