The fifth installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s successful anthology series, American Horror Story: Hotel (2015), is chock full of horror references and clichés. They’re not subtle, and they run the gamut of identifiable horror standards. Is Horror Story trying to subvert these clichés or is it just haphazardly pulling from other proven successes? One thing is clear enough: Murphy and Falchuk are big fans of The Shining (1980) and Se7en (1995), at the very least.
Hotel’s plot centers around the Hotel Cortez, an enigmatic building home to bizarre human oddities and sinister events. Mere seconds pass in the series’ pilot before familiar horror references start showing up. The first: Hotel Cortez’s carpet, which looks remarkably similar to the carpet in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.
The octagonal carpet has been used as an “evil place” homage throughout the past few decades, even turning up in Toy Story (1995) as the floor pattern in Cid the evil toy-exploding kid’s house.
If the carpet wasn’t enough for Shining-lovers, Hotel even employs creepy blonde kids that lurk in the hallways, who even deliver lines like "do you want to play?" Though in the world of American Horror Story, with a diversion like Hotel, are Shining references really a surprise? Ryan Murphy is a pop-culture regurgitator of the highest form, and every hotel-based horror creation since 1980 owes a debt to the Kubrickian classic.
But The Shining isn’t the most overtly obvious source material for Hotel’s initial exposition. David Fincher’s neo-noir psychological horror/thriller Se7en has massive influence on Hotel’s initial setup. In Se7en, detectives are in pursuit of a serial killer who punishes those who have fallen prey to the seven deadly sins using extreme methods of the very sins they’ve committed. The “lust” victim is punished for his sins through death by sex; in his case, a custom-made dildo/knife that fornicates the man to death. An almost identical scene occurs in Hotel’s pilot, where a man inexplicably finds himself raped by a similar device, albeit with much less context and appropriateness than in Se7en. It’s a scene focused on disconnected, superficial shock value over psychological narrative horror, which is the prominent segregation between the storytelling approaches of someone like Murphy versus someone like Fincher.
Given the title screen for Hotel flashes The Ten Commandments out-of-sequence in bright neon light indicates the creators know what they’re drawing from.
But what’s the point of this referencing other films? Is it supposed to be kitschy-cool to revisit horror scenes we’ve seen before? Is Chloë Sevigny basically reprising her role from Fincher's Zodiac (2007)? If so, is this an idiotic ploy or a fun homage? Not everyone is sure Horror Story can keep reprising its disjointed construction methods every year. Indiewire says “If one were to play a drinking game where you did a shot for every horror trope on display in just the premiere episode of Hotel, you wouldn't be conscious long enough to see them all.” Vulture adds "It’s an explosion in a pastiche factory so immense that people will be finding bits of homage in adjacent counties for years."
And Vanity Fair, after calling the show “juvenile” and “self-indulgent,” referred to what American Horror Story as a franchise has evolved into as “cheap, poseur nihilism masquerading as risqué taboo flouting. What we have is a show where Ryan Murphy can indulge his fantasies about hairless, pouting pretty boys, while punishing or otherwise marginalizing limp-wristers and cross-dressers, and where he and Falchuk can yuk it up together over a kitchen-sink style of Grand Guignolia that uses excess to mask its ineptitude. If there were anything resembling wit behind American Horror Story’s grotesquerie, I’d feel very different about that dreadful scene [referring to the murder-rape]. But at this point it’s impossible to see any value in the show’s lurid shocks.”
Other basic-level horror tropes found at the induction of Hotel (compiled by Indiewire) range from dumb blonde Swedish female tourists, “a cop whose son was abducted; the wife of a cop who "can't look at her husband because you remind me of our kidnapped son"; the dramatic walk-up-to and pull-back-of a shower curtain; staying in a place you know will kill you; going to a place you know will kill you; repeatedly returning to a place you know will kill you.”
Whether or not all this makes for a detrimental blow to the franchise or simply evolves into another candy corn audience-loving installment in the historically convoluted and silly (yet beloved) franchise is up to the viewers. People tend to watch Murphy/Falchuk shows for their trashy, pure-entertainment qualities. It's something near-unwatchable but equally challenging to ignore. It needs to be watched with an open mind, taking in its madness for what it is, not for what you want (or expect) it to be. It's a tapestry woven with the likes of Nosferatu (1922) and The Eagles' "Hotel California" in the same thread.
To that end, an aimless patchwork of other horror classics playing on tired tropes can be a perfectly successful practice. ScreenRant says "The premiere is everything awful about AHS wrapped up in an admittedly gorgeous, frequently bizarre, and sometimes intoxicating package... a superficial descent into surrealism, wherein an endless train of pop-culture references." It’s certainly not the creation of art; the distinct emotional difference between Fincher’s death-by-anal-rape in Se7en and the one seen in Hotel’s premiere is clear to anyone with standard human feelings. Is Hotel lampooning its tropes, or meaning them as homage? How far, and to what level of consciousness, Hotel takes its recycling of other material is the question that will define the year's miniseries. Either way, this amalgam of pretense and absurdity is definitively Horror Story.