[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
“Into the Dark,” which wrapped its second season earlier this year on Hulu, is an anthology series. By its nature, there’s a certain hit-or-miss quality, especially when the horror collection adds the constraint of tying each installment into a holiday. Some can get too cute by half, while others (like Nacho Vigalondo’s bonkers “Pooka!” or the most recent “Blood Moon”) strip away those ties to find the thematic strength underneath.
It’s what makes “Culture Shock,” the Gigi Saul Guerrero-directed episode of “Into the Dark,” shocking at times, and it also makes it difficult to talk around the specific turns it takes without giving away its ultimate goal. Still, effectively told in three parts, it balances all of those inputs, making it a standout among “Into the Dark” episodes and the greater Blumhouse body of work at large.
The opening third is one that Guerrero tells in an unflinching way, following Marisol (Martha Higareda) as she tries to make her way to the Mexican-American border. “Culture Shock” shows why Marisol is choosing to leave her home while also showing the potential perils of a journey to the border, with plenty of people along the way preying on bodies and savings and hope itself.
It’s a harrowing opening that Guerrero expertly flips on its head once Marisol arrives at her destination. After traveling under cover of darkness (DP Byron Werner lights some of those sections as if Marisol and her companions are moving through an endless void with only lantern light to guide them), Marisol wakes up in a pastel-drenched neighborhood that’s suburbia, heartland, and old-money colonial all rolled into one. It’s a ‘50s backlot view of Americana that she instantly recognizes as off-kilter.
The way that Guerrero leans into that artifice, showing that this new soup of patriotism and sameness is its own waking nightmare, is another textbook bit of unsettling escalation. Each new erased personal detail or phrase from the national slogan handbook (Barbara Crampton makes “You’re in America now, the Land of Plenty” sound more sinister than it’s ever been) is one more layer that Marisol has to both recognize and contend with.
This is all made manifest with a slew of genre touches — robotic Stepfordized movement, an “I Got You Babe” approach to the national anthem, some haunting close-ups of eyes, glitching faces — that would seem stale if they weren’t put to such effective use. (Extra credit also to the sound team for making a bite from a piece of pizza sound like a crunching animal carcass.) All these choices are deployed in confident, simple, and unabashedly unsubtle ways that point to the menace within the metaphor.
It’s not a neat one-to-one comparison, but this approach to a supposed idyllic town that’s hiding something dark underneath makes other recent attempts pale in comparison. In the process, “Culture Shock” finds a potent way to address trauma and identity and control, all without shying away from its real-world connections.
Pair It With: Last fall, Carlos Aguilar wrote this extremely helpful primer on recent Latinx horror films. With plenty of places to rent/stream the others, “Culture Shock” is one of ten titles from the last half-decade ready to jumpstart a handful of different queues.
Other Fans: In this LA Times interview with Yolanda Machado, Guerrero talks about the way language plays a part in “Culture Shock,” both in her push for how Spanish is used on-screen, and how on-set conversations helped get across a more authentic idea of what the title truly represented.