This review contains spoilers
Contrary to popular belief, legendary silent movie star Rudolph Valentino did not in fact die following surgery on a perforated ulcer. In reality, the actor faked his own death in exchange for immortality. At least, that’s what we’re told in this week’s episode of Hotel.
‘Flicker’ opens with the discovery of a secret, hidden section of the Cortez by a pair of construction workers who are renovating the hotel. Despite the fact that this eerie corridor (hidden behind a brick wall and then an inch of steel, no less) “smells like death”, the two men decide to venture inside anyway.
This is AHS, so of course this turns out to be a terrible idea. The men are promptly killed and drained by a pair of decrepit, ravenously thirsty vampires. Even more frightening than this bloody scene, however, is the look on the Countess’s face when she sees the hidden corridor for herself: she is absolutely petrified. As Iris points out, she (and we) have never seen the Countess scared before, so what was behind that steel wall can’t be good news.
In order to find out the reason for the secret corridor, as well as the identities of its horrifying occupants, the episode takes us back to 1925, when the Countess was a mortal woman. Far from the icy fashionista she is today, Countess Elizabeth was once a naïve young actress. While playing a harem concubine in The Son of the Sheik, she is seduced by Rudolph Valentino (played, interestingly, by Finn Wittrock wearing a fake nose and coloured contact lenses) and his wife, Natacha Rambova (Alexandra Daddario). The trio begin a delicious affair, which is tragically cut short when the Countess hears the news of Valentino’s untimely death while she is attending a party at the Cortez. Distraught, she tries to throw herself from a window, but is saved (ironically) by James March, who she soon marries.
Later, while visiting Valentino’s grave, Countess Elizabeth bumps into the man himself, who turns out to be very much alive. It is revealed that the actor faked his own death in exchange for the gift of everlasting youth, bestowed upon him by none other than director F. W. Murnau. Seduced by immortality, the Countess agrees to join Valentino and Rambova in becoming a vampire, and the three reconcile. March, however, has other ideas, and jealously kidnaps the movie stars in order to wall them up inside his hotel, where they have remained for the past 90 years.
My favourite episodes of AHS tend to involve real people and events, and ‘Flicker’ is no exception. Everything about the episode’s supernatural spin on Old Hollywood, from Valentino’s very literal movie star immortality, to the fact that Murnau was turned during a vampiric orgy in the Carpathians while making Nosferatu, is joyously over the top.
Intelligently directed by Michael Goi, the episode is also brilliantly shot, with the scenes in which Valentino becomes a vampire taking the form of a miniature silent film; think iris wipes, clumsy in-camera effects, and, in one beautifully unsubtle moment, the shadow of Murnau’s hand looming over the sleeping Valentino like the eponymous vampire in his film. I’m not entirely sure about the decision to bring Wittrock back to play Valentino (particularly as his Italian accent is horrendous), but it does help that he bears a striking resemblance to the silent movie star. Plus, finally getting a look at the Countess’s maker explains why her taste in men is so specific.
The episode’s best performance, without a doubt, goes to Evan Peters as the scene-stealing James March. Along with Liz Taylor, March is unquestionably the best character in the show, and Peters plays him with a frenzied charisma that it is impossible not to enjoy. Everything from his clipped period accent, to the fact that his every mannerism is as charming as it is sinister, is utterly perfect, and a testament to what a fantastic actor Peters is. This is perhaps a controversial opinion, but I also think that Lady Gaga is a decent actress, and she is understated but brilliant this episode, playing naïveté just as convincingly as cruelty.
Surprisingly, although the man himself remains a colossal bore, the John Lowe portion of this week’s episode wasn’t too bad. The former detective has checked into a mental health facility, but only because the murderer behind the Ten Commandments Killings may be staying there. Rather than the killer, he ends up meeting a vampire child called Wren, who offers increasingly cryptic advice as to how John can find him. Although the words are not actually said, the episode implies that the murderer is almost certainly John himself. At this point, who else could it be? Numerous viewers, including myself, called this weeks ago, which begs the question why the writers have waited so long to (sort of) reveal such an obvious twist.
While I loved this week’s episode, I have to say that it feels like a case of too little, too late. With only three episodes left, it’s far too late in the day for the series to be finding its feet, or to fix its flaws (see: too much John Lowe, not enough Ramona Royale). Regardless of what the final episodes have in store, this is definitely my least favourite series of AHS.