In 1984 Brian De Palma co-wrote and directed Body Double, an erotic, voyeuristic thriller that's best remembered for one gruesome scene in which a young woman (Deborah Shelton) gets drilled to death in her Hollywood Hills home. The movie sparked outrage from critics, especially women, who dubbed the flick "Dressed to Drill" after De Palma's earlier work Dressed to Kill.
It's a terrifying piece of filmmaking, in an otherwise rather tame movie, because the murder scene is set up slowly, the audience also fearing for Shelton's life as the unsuspecting woman wanders around her house in a slinky nightdress while one man is running down the street to save her and another is preparing the electric drill that will bring about her demise.
Watch it again and you'll see something unexpected; namely, very little except suggestion. De Palma, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, understood that, in horror, the unseen is often far more frightening than the real thing.
The creators behind American Horror Story: Hotel should go back and do their homework. Scratch that: They should be given an F and expelled from Scary School. Openly gay Ryan Murphy and openly straight Brad Falchuk, the masterminds behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, and this year's Scream Queens, along with all five seasons of AHS, have, with Hotel, created the worst piece of schlock shock since someone decided a remake of Black Christmas made sense.
There are so many problems with Hotel it's hard to know where to begin (the absurd backstory plots, the waste of talent, Gaga), but the most glaring offense is the soft-core gay porn violence that's creepy for all the wrong reasons. By the time episode two hit, we witnessed a man in the hotel get fucked to death by a mummy-type creature with a spear dildo. The actor was a hunk, naturally, and before he took death up the a**, the camera gave us a shot of his naked butt, sexy and taut. As he gets pounded, we see the action through a mirror, looking like pretty much any hardcore bondage scene, minus the murder. It wasn't scary, it wasn't suspenseful, it wasn't erotic: It was like watching the two creators get off on death and fucking, as intensely as cable television will allow. These days that means pretty much everything you see on the big screen.
They didn't stop there. Almost each episode since has featured sexy men getting murdered, most of whom are shown naked (usually from behind, sometimes bent over), with no build-up or suspense or, you know, horror. The preferred form of murder? Throats slit, repeatedly, over and over, too many to count on most episodes, always with blood-spurting, Monty Python-style, so technically proficient it looks as if the creators purchased a state-of-the-art neck-blood-squirt machine and got carried away like two little boys in Willy Wonka's Killing Factory.
Murphy and Falchuk have a penchant for casting openly gay actors and gay icons (Yay!) and among this season's male eye candy are out actors Cheyenne Jackson and Matt Bomer, neither of whom can seem to keep their clothes on, and straight hottie Finn Wittrock, also fabric-deprived.
They also gave us, once again, the wonderful out actor Denis O'Hare, who shines as Liz Taylor, the transgender bartender/sage at the Hotel Cortez. But even her plot was ruined when the writers threw in an After School Special about the difference between "gay" and "transgender." She's the latter. With writing that comes across like Sesame Street for horror fans, O'Hare explains to Kathy Bates, who must be kicking herself for taking on such a silly role, that he simply knew at a young age he wanted to be a she.
Great, until the next time we see her and she's in love with a man. Every year the AHS writing gets even more unhinged, so it's no real surprise that they switch plotlines like the actors switch roles, but that kind of disregard to detail is an affront to writers, not to mention a blow to anyone trying to understand what being transgender means. Never fear (literally) because the two go off to brutally murder some residents right after the lecture scene ends. Hotel's script mantra is "When in doubt, kill." (On a side note, Jackson's character starts off as gay, and later, bisexual.)
On paper, the idea of turning the tables on sexy gay women getting murdered makes perfect sense. But Hotel lacks even the basic tenants of suspense: build-up, eerie score, the unseen presence, the lingering camera like a person watching. Instead, Hotel is like someone threw up every horror movie ever made and started filming the mess. In addition to camera angles gone amuck, the series gives us vampires, dead serial killers, living serial killers, ghosts who torture for fun, monster babies, blood-sucking schoolchildren and a setting that mimics The Shining on Ecstasy.
The more gruesome torture scenes, proffered up by Even Peters as the Dead Resident of the Hotel, are practically snuff films, more likely to induce nausea than anything else. It doesn't help that Peters' role this year is an embarrassing take on Orson Welles, or someone from that era, and he's too young and baby-faced to pull it off. Wes Bentley, as the detective, mumbles almost incoherently through most of his violence- and sex-laden scenes, and Chloe Sevigny has such a stupid role as the caring-wife-turned-vampire-Mom that, if you'd never seen her act before, you'd think she was the worst actor alive then dead.
Then there's Lady Gaga, who's not a terrible actor, just an uninteresting one. She pretty much has one emotion, fatigued boredom, a fatal mistake because she's the character who pulls everything together. Gaga's Countess is irresistible to virtually every other character on the show, gay, straight, male, female, dead, alive, and it doesn't work. She has neither the acting chops nor the conventional beauty for it to succeed. By the time Angela Bassett shows up as another obsessed, jilted lover, you're rolling your eyes at the absurdity, only stopping long enough to wonder "Why didn't they give her the part?" This would have been the role Jessica Lange knocked out of the park, and she gets the most kudos this year for having the good sense to sit it out.
Murphy and Falchuk forgot something else De Palma, Hitchcock and pretty much every director in between understands: Vulnerable women in jeopardy are far more terrifying to witness than men in the same position. It's a fact of cinematic life. The heels, the legs, the weaker physicality. The opening sequence in Jaws never would have worked so perfectly had the skinny-dipping first victim been the man at that beach barbecue. Watching Hotel, though, you don't get the feeling the creators care about scaring us into oblivion, with men or women. They're too obsessed with getting off on this monster of their own creation.