One of the most harrowing moments from David Fincher’s 1995 horror-thriller “Se7en” occurs late in the film’s second act, as Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) questions a man for the grisly murder of a prostitute. John Doe (Kevin Spacey), in his quest to punish people who fall prey to the seven deadly sins, forced the man to simulate sex with a prostitute while wearing a custom-made S&M dildo designed to do graphic harm for anyone in “lust.” The effect the experience has on the man is catastrophic, as he cries and wails his way through an explanation of what happened, as we, the audience, try to put the pieces together ourselves. Despite visiting the scene of the crime shortly after it took place, not until a telling photograph of the device is flipped over do we truly understand the horrors of the act, and the simple, bloodless image is permanently wedged into the subconscious of us all.
Part of what makes the scene so painfully memorable is that it wasn’t the criminal who performed the murder. He, instead, made a largely innocent man do it, giving him an ultimatum that could be refused only by committing another sin (suicide). Fincher matches that vicarious choice with his camera, taking an unimaginable act and choosing not to show it. Rather, we wallow in the destruction and pain it caused. The combination of our imagination with just enough fuel for it proved more than enough to create an iconic scene in horror history.
“American Horror Story: Hotel” wastes no time in recreating the scene, nor does it seem to hide any qualms about its blunt reference. Early in the first episode, a man is raped on screen by a “being” wearing a device nearly identical to the one pictured in “Se7en.” Cutting to and from the scene repeatedly, the viewer is forced to watch something utterly disconnected to their own identity, as no one in the scene could be considered innocent.
This is not the only reference to Fincher’s breakthrough film in the “Hotel” premiere. One-half of a couple is killed and the other severely punished for cheating on their spouses. The opening credits flash the 10 commandments in red, neon lights as creepy monsters climb out of mattresses. Even the dark, expansive and shadow-filled corridors of locations outside the hotel may remind some of the police station, library and other venues of “Se7en.” Yet with all this adding up to an obvious ode, of sorts, to the preceding film, the clumsily-executed rape scene still proves the most telling as to why Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s series has been on a rocky decline since its first season.
First, let’s set aside the argument that horror isn’t about what you see as much as the unseen. While a believer in films like “Alien” and “The Exorcist” being far more frightening for what’s left to our imagination than the in-your-face gratuitousness on display in many predominant horror hits, it’s clear “American Horror Story” has been on a push for the latter since its early seasons. Murphy, Falchuk and the rest of the writers have shown repeated curiosity in exploring the taboo imagery of the small screen, showcasing actions and ideas considered too risqué or explicitly sexual for mainstream TV. On occasion, the show works to subvert expectations as to the motivations behind characters that seem superficially unpleasant, and, for that, “American Horror Story” should be considered admirably progressive for our culture at large.
Where it slips up is in subverting the staples of the genre itself. 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. [Slight spoilers until the next paragraph] Its homages/rip-offs include: dumb blonde tourists; silent twin children who run through the halls of the Hotel Cortez (a fitting touch considering the debt all hotel-based horror owes to “The Shining”); 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.
With only one episode screened in the 13-hour season, it’s hard to tell whether these expectations will be cleverly inverted or merely used as a base for more lurid evocations. Based on seasons past, I’d lean toward the former, but — aside from the always sterling production design — there is one audacious sign of hope in this otherwise trite “Hotel.” Much has been made by the FX publicity team regarding Lady Gaga’s addition to the cast in the first “AHS” season without Emmy-winner Jessica Lange, and — while a Gaga-for-Lange trade heavily favors the professional actress — the showrunners make the most of her dramatic unveiling. In what turns out to be a case of cross-cultural matchmaking made in heaven, the singer is put on a pedestal fit for a diva by both the story and its framing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Gaga’s talent adds much to the proceedings, but her presence — and the manner in which its captured — certainly does. It’s the sole instance in “Checking In” that manages to blend extravagant artifice and high-caliber formalities.
Whether or not the show can follow up such a grand introduction with creative and substantive content is the lingering question, though perhaps a connected query is more suitable: Why do you watch “American Horror Story” — for the camp or for quality?
“American Horror Story: Hotel” airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FX.