American Horror Story: Hotel S05E04 “Devil’s Night” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Tuesdays, 10pm
Writer: Jennifer Salt
Director: Loni Peristere
Essential Plot Points:
- A handsome man with long black hair checks into the Cortez. Liz recognises him as Richard Ramirez, infamous and very dead serial killer, making his return for Devil’s Night. She shows him up to his room, where Mr March has left “gifts”. These turn out to be victims, one of whom Ramirez kills, then he pursues the other into the arms of March.
- One level down, John is woken by blood seeping down his crime wall. He goes upstairs and finds Evers, who, in an unusual moment of honesty, admits she hates Halloween. We flash back to 1925 and find out her son was kidnapped and murdered by Gordon Northcott, the Wineville killer. She bonds briefly with John over their similar losses, then leaves to continue her work.
- John’s family gently but firmly rebuff him and he’s left alone in the hotel. Unknown to him, Alex takes Holden home. Horrified by how cold her ageless son is, she fetches him some juice and, when she brings it to him, finds him drinking blood from the family dog.
- Holden asks her to take him to his “other mommy” and she returns to the hotel. There, she confronts the Countess who explains she “rescued” Holden from a life of neglect. The Countess offers Alex eternal life but she draws a gun on the vampire and flees.
- At the hotel, John decides to get very drunk. This is not the best plan ever especially as he gets talking to a woman he’s convinced is dressed as serial killer Aileen Wournos. It is, in fact, Wournos, and she attacks him when he takes her back to his hotel. John breaks free, subdues her and demands answers from Liz.
- She tells him about Devil’s Night, the annual event where Mr March invites the greatest serial killers in American history to dinner. John refuses to believe this, even after seeing Ramirez and Wournos on the guest register and walking past a man dressed as the Zodiac killer. But, it turns out, he’s invited too…
- Returning to his room and prepared to arrest “Wournos” he finds her gone and a tux with a note from Liz. With little else to do, he goes to dinner.
- There, he finds Ramirez, Wournos, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, all dead and yet all sitting around a table eating dinner with Edward March, another dead man. They bicker and argue and dose John with absinthe, cuffing him to his chair. They explain that March is “The Master”, the killer who taught them everything they know.
- Powerless, John watches as a victim is led in for Dahmer, who proceeds to lobotomise him. Later, Sally brings in another victim, a businessman she seduced outside. The killers all fall on him with knives and John begins to scream.
- Suddenly, he finds himself alone in a room being comforted by Sally. She assures him it was just an hallucination and he leaves. Behind him, unseen, the murder continues as March watches him go.
- Upstairs, the Countess infects Alex and watches the disease kill and rebuild her, weeping…
Weird as it sounds, this episode reminded me of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There’s the same sense here of Halloween being “Christmas”, with everyone taking the night off. Or as it is here, everyone coming out of retirement for a night.
But before we get to that, let’s talk briefly about the Countess and Alex scenes that bookend the episode. Chloe Sevigny and Lady Gaga do great work together here and there’s a real sense of the Countess as a well-dressed Mephistopheles, offering Alex eternal life. There’s a price, of course, but it’s not quite apparent yet. And neither is the Countess’s endgame. Is she looking to expand the family? Looking for more new blood? Is she recruiting soldiers? If so, why?
But the bulk of this episode is spent with John and, honestly, that’s a relief. A week off from Iris and Donovan and an (almost) week off from Duffy is surprisingly welcome and Wes Bentley and Evan Peters do not disappoint. The central dinner party is one of the show’s strongest moments to date for a very odd reason. It’s not horrific because it’s abnormal; it’s horrific because it’s banal.
This is the family dinner so many of us sit through. The stern parent trying to hold things together, the amiable uncle who keeps wandering off topic, the family member who drinks too much, the family member who says too little. All of them are here, recast as the American Family which is itself recast as a royal family of murder. It’s a fascinating, complex piece of writing that tries to place the Cortez in the centre of a web of horror unlike anything else on this season to date. It largely works too, held together by some brilliant scripting from Salt and Evan Peters’s endlessly chipper, terrifying central turn as March.
So, is John, a man who’s “dined” with some of the worst serial killers in history, there as one of the family?
The answer is either “no” or “not yet”.
The dinner plays very much like an initiation of sorts, John being shown what he is before he becomes it. There’s even dialogue that implies that. However, the episode also takes great pains to emphasise just how isolated John is. He’s cut off from his family now and his presence on the guest list for the dinner is a red flag that something is badly wrong in his head. It’s a credit to the show that we’re a month in, just now getting to answers and it feels measured and confident rather than like the episode is marking time.
That being said, the episode still walks a fine line. The idea of giving serial killers an ecology, and hierarchy, is clever and very well executed here. But it may leave a nasty aftertaste. There’s a danger of this playing as pat and forced. A feeling that these very real, very broken, human monsters are somehow excused by being presented in a fictional context.
They’re not. The episode walks right up to that line but, doesn’t cross it. Although not everyone may agree.
Complex, difficult and making brave choices all the way along “Devils Night” is one of the oddest and strongest episodes of the series to date. It also sets up major changes for the future, with Alex turned, John isolated and a possible murder at the Cortez. All of which means one thing; Devil’s Night is over and now it’s time for the residents and staff to get back to their dreadful, bloody work.
Happy Halloween everyone.
- There’s not a single bad guest star here. So obviously Naomi Campbell had the week off.
- Seriously the guest cast are great, all with difficult material. All four impress but Lilly Rabe’s leering, twitchy trainwreck is the most memorable, especially as you see the tragedy of Wournos as well as the monstrosity. Very smart, subtle acting.
- “SUCK MY LEFT TIT, CLARK GABLE!” Also she gets to yell this which is absolutely a good thing.
- Lots of back story for Miss Evers, all of it tragic, all of it historically accurate. Nice to see Mare Winningham getting more to do.
- “This is my problem with police officers. All you care about is evidence. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Until that evidence no longer fits the narrative you need to be true. At which point the evidence becomes an illusion. A mistake. A TRICK. You’ve lived in my hotel long enough, John. You’ve seen enough evidence to know what’s impossible becomes very possible here.” This glorious speech is one of the lynchpins of the episode and the series. John is a rationalist, a man used to building his life on facts. He’s now living somewhere where reality is mutable. The other guests revel in that. He’s resisting it, for now. A brilliant summation of the battle for John’s soul and mind, and yet another great performance from Evan Peters.
- “We are the Mount Rushmore of MURDER. We have reputations. Codes of Conduct.” Likewise this line, which Peters attacks with the relish of a man eating an especially fine steak.
- “Like the Iliad, your stories will live on forever.” March isn’t just killing for fun, he’s killing because it’s a means of making the American story better, at least in his eyes.
- “This’ll buy me a year of being left alone, right?” “As ALWAYS.” What an interesting exchange. It suggests March has some measure of power over Sally (and whatever her drill-groined friend is) and gives us an idea of where Sally fits on the food chain.
- Holden’s dull. It’s not entirely the actor’s fault either. The character is meant to present as cold and flat and he absolutely provides. Which makes Alex’s love for him seem a little obsessive which, in turn, is the point. But still, the Holden scenes should be the emotional core of the series but as this episode shows, they’re increasingly its flattest note.
- This episode’s guest cast include some of the worst serial killers in human history. Whether or not using them as fictional characters here, or giving them a common backstory, is in good taste is up to you. Here’s who they are; research further at your own risk.
- Richard Ramirez terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1984 and 1985. A burglar, rapist and killer his horrifically violent crimes left 14 dead and countless more traumatised. He died, as the show states, in 2013.
- Aileen Wournos killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. She claimed all the murders were self defence and that her victims had all raped or attempted to rape whilst she was working as a prostitute. She was found guilty of six of the murders despite this and sentenced to death. She died on 9 October, 2002. Charlize Theron would go on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Wournos in 2003 movie, Monster.
- The Zodiac Killer operated in Northern California in the ’60s and ’70s. He killed five people but claimed to have killed 37 in total. He was never caught, despite a vast manhunt and a series of mocking cyphers and letters he sent to the papers. These continued up to 2007, although the veracity of the later letters is unclear. Several people have claimed to be the Zodiac and the case remains unsolved and open. David Fincher’s 2007 movie Zodiac explores the case in some detail. It also formed the basis for Dirty Harry and was a pivotal part of 2012 movie, Seven Psychopaths.
- John Wayne Gacy murdered and in some cases sexually assaulted 33 victims between 1972 and 1978 in Chicago, Illinois. An apparent pillar of the community, who even worked as a children’s entertainer, Gacy received the death penalty and was executed on 9 May 1994.
- Jeffrey Dahmer, nicknamed the Milwaukee Cannibal, raped, murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Dahmer was found to have cannibalised victims, committed necrophilia with some of their corpses and kept parts of their bodies. He was beaten to death in 1994 by a fellow prisoner.
- The Wineville murders in 1925 were real too. Gordon Stewart Northcott killed three people and was implicated in the murder of a fourth. Events related to that case formed the basis for the 2008 movie Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
- Now’s a good time to talk about the inspiration for the Cortez too. It’s loosely based on the Hotel Cecil, a real, infamous LA hotel that has a bloody history. Richard Ramirez stayed there in 1985 and fellow serial killer Jack Unterweger did the same in 1991. It’s persistently rumoured to be the last place that Elizabeth Short, the victim of the Black Dahlia killing, visited. It was also the site of the death of Elisa Lam in 2013. That incident in particular seems to have served as a major inspiration for the course of this series. It also forms a central part of the complex, interesting mythos of fiction podcast, Tanis.
- Playing Richard Ramirez is a serious move against type for Anthony Ruivivar but it pays off. He’s best known as Carlos, the magnificently grumpy probationary paramedic on Third Watch. However he also turns up in Starship Troopers, Tropic Thunder and voiced Bruce Wayne and Batman in Beware The Batman.
- Lilly Rabe, who plays Wournos, is a familiar face to AHS fans. She’s appeared in “Murder House”, “Asylum”, “Coven” and “Freak Show” as well as here. Her other work involves recent, sadly cancelled SF series, The Whispers and playing Petra Moritz on three episodes of The Good Wife.
- John Carroll Lynch, who plays Gacy, is a veteran character actor. You’ve seen him most recently in a stunningly good turn as Eastman in “Here’s Not Here”, episode four of this season of The Walking Dead. He was also Varlyn Stroud in Carnivale, Bud Morris in Body Of Proof and of course Twisty The Clown in “Freak Show”, the previous season of American Horror Story.
- Seth Gable’s work as Dahmer here is a world away from what most genre fans will know him for. He had a memorable run on Arrow as Count Vertigo but registered most strongly as the heroic Lincoln Lee on Fringe.
- Shot of the episode is this. A gothic nightmare leading a child away across a sunlit beach. Brilliant and horrible and weird.
Review by Alasdair Stuart