'American Horror Story: Hotel' season premiere recap: 'Checking In'

For The Baltimore Sun
Creepy blond kids and a bloodthirsty Lady Gaga on the "American Horror Story: Hotel" premiere.

Official signs of fall: colorful foliage, pumpkin spice everything and rivers of blood on my television screen.

Yup, it’s that time of year again, folks. "American Horror Story" is back to terrify your Wednesday nights with a new season subtitled "Hotel," and our titular building seems to have basically every kind of nightmare living in it, short of that horrifying clown from last year. (Yet, anyway.)

Welcome to the Hotel Cortez

The series opens as two clueless tourists foolishly decide to spend a night in the darkly art deco Hotel Cortez, where, surprise surprise, truly terrible things are happening.

After discovering a half-dead, hairless zombie person trapped inside their mattress, these girls somehow do NOT run screaming from the building, but instead report the incident to management, which leads to them being kidnapped, tortured and ultimately used as human blood bags under the watchful eye of Iris (Kathy Bates), the cranky lady in giant spectacles who seems to run the place.

Meanwhile, a bleached blond heroin addict named Gabriel (Max Greenfield) checks in, and is given the mysterious Room 64, an apparent nightmare zone we’ve already been led to believe is pretty much ground zero for Where the Bad Things Are.

Gabriel shoots up, and then is almost immediately attacked and brutally raped by a monstrous being who looks like a cross between the "Murder House" season's Rubber Man and a naked mole rat. (He also has a conical drill bit for a penis because this show is 100 percent nuts.)

This thing – called "the Addiction Demon" in the show's promotional materials – is so vile and graphic you KNOW we’re going to be seeing it a lot more this season, so start preparing yourselves now.

In case you didn’t the memo: Basically no one should stay at this hotel literally ever.

We also meet a handful of other notable Cortez regulars, to include: Hypodermic Sally (Sarah Paulson) a drug addict sporting a leopard print coat and frizzed out hair who appears at random times all over the building; Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare), a “Cleopatra” superfan who also seems to serve as a particularly fabulous general receptionist and greeter; an as yet unnamed maid (Mare Winningham) who is obsessed with getting blood out of the bedding (shades of Moira, anyone?); and a handful of creepy blond kids straight out of “Children of the Corn” who seem to roam the hallways at random.

Meet the Countess

Out of the gate, what everyone wants to know about “Hotel” is: What about Lady Gaga?

The musical superstar has stepped into some fairly big shoes – and title card space – by taking over the big, dramatic "AHS" diva role that has traditionally been given to Oscar and Emmy-winning actress Jessica Lange for the past four years.

And some part of me is dying to know what Lange would have made out of the Countess, but given her well-documented aversion to playing gore, we all know this character would look very different if she’d stuck around.)

Gaga’s Countess is a fashion concept as much as a fully realized person at this point, so the Lange comparisons are probably going to have to wait until she actually has more than a dozen lines.

Anyway, the Countess is the cherry of insanity on top of the sundae of crazy that is “Hotel." A dramatically dressed, pseudo-vampire with a penchant for statement accessories, the Countess survives by drinking blood and cohabitates with the very dishy Donovan (Matt Bomer, looking fantastic), who is also a blood drinker/vampire/whatever.

The two of them occasionally go out to graveyard movies and bring home another couple to hook up with and then murder. Romance!

Apparently we’re also solving crimes this season?

In case the immortal blood drinkers and the mole rat guy who rapes people to death weren’t enough, we’re also introduced to John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a very intense cop with a tragic past who is in the midst of investigating (what else) a series of brutal murders tied to a mysterious voice that keeps taunting him on the phone.

John’s investigation leads him to the Hotel Cortez, and he even ends up getting a room after his wife Alex (Chloe Sevigny) decides that she needs a break from their strained marriage.

The fact that John moves into Creep Central basically ensures that he will 100 percent deserve to get stabbed or whatever’s going to happen to him. We learn that the tension in the Lowes’ marriage is because their son, Holden, was kidnapped at the Santa Monica Pier five years ago, and they’ve never managed to get past it.

Well, wouldn’t you know that it turns out one of the Cortez Children of the Corn is a dead ringer for John’s missing son – and heck, may even be his missing son if the last scene is anything to go by. (Are these the real kids? Tiny vampires? Eternal doppelgangers? Who can say?)

 The 'Murder House' connections are really fun

The overall feel of “Hotel” is fairly similar to “Murder House," which also featured time jumps, unexplained creepy dudes in rubber suits, ghosts, demon children and an obsession of fish-eye lens camera shots.

“Hotel," besides having all of those things, also has Marcy (Christine Estabrook), the real estate agent who sold the Murder House to the Harmon family way back in Season 1.

This time, she’s working on selling the Cortez to a New Yorker named Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson), who has a very inquisitive son named Lachlan (Lyric Lennon), a child that is clearly destined to become possessed or something within the next five episodes.

Anyway, “the owner” is apparently selling the Cortez because reasons, and who even is the owner, anyway? Is it the Countess?

Iris, Liz Taylor and Donovan are all pretty concerned about the whole “possibly becoming homeless” problem, but the Countess is nonplussed and immediately sets to work becoming BFFs with Drake.

She’s also super interested in befriending Lachlan and shows him her secret Kids’ Activity Room, which contains floor-to-ceiling Tetris, giant candy dispensers and also the Children of the Corn, who are maybe a big group of missing kids? There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense at the moment. (These children have got to be magic – Holden’s been missing at least five years and looks exactly the same age.)

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The episode’s final montage is set to the Eagles’ “Hotel California," and though the song choice is a bit on the nose, the sequence reveals a lot about the pasts of the characters we’ve met so far.

The Countess turned Donovan after he died of an overdose while doing drugs with Hypodermic Sally. She, in turn, is a ghost because Iris pushed her out a window and killed her after Iris found her son, Donovan, dead. Liz Taylor doesn’t appear to age. Oh, and now that he’s an official Cortez resident, John Lowe has been officially given Room 64. That’s surely going to end well.

There are monsters in the mattresses, missing children in the hallways and everyone seems trapped and miserable. The Yelp reviews on this place must be great.

Odds and Ends:

The Hotel Cortez set is so incredibly detailed it’s like a character all by itself. Team "AHS" better clean up at the Creative Arts Emmys next year for set design.

One episode in and this season already has a much stronger horror movie vibe than either “Freak Show” or “Coven." We all love "AHS’" insane sense of camp, I know, but it’s nice to see it balanced with classic horror tropes.

It felt like there was already so much going on in this episode and half the main cast hasn’t even shown up yet: Evan Peters, Finn Wittrock and Angela Bassett all have roles this season, and several other familiar faces and recognizable actors have been announced as playing famous serial killers. This hotel better have a lot of rooms.

Did anyone NOT think that Hypodermic Sally was dead from the first moment she showed up?

After having two heads on last year’s “Freak Show," Paulson must be so happy to only have to deal with a frizzy wig.

Obviously, Iris has stayed at the hotel to be near her dead, vampire son. What’s less clear is whether she’s still alive/human herself – that comment about having to see Donovan every day seemed awfully loaded. I’m inclined to think not.

So … what’s “that thing” Iris has to feed in Room 33, I wonder?

Liz Taylor is amazing and I need the backstory there ASAP.

Thoughts, comments, or elaborate theories about who’s dead and who isn’t? Hit me up on Twitter: @LacyMB

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