(Blumhouse Television and Hulu have partnered for a monthly horror anthology series titled Into The Dark, set to release a full holiday-themed feature the first Friday of every month. Horror anthology expert Matt Donato will be tackling the series one-by-one, stacking up the entries as they become streamable.)
Cue the celebratory fireworks and break out grandma’s potato salad recipe, because Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock takes advantage of Into The Dark’s full conceptual potential. Her July 4th treatment has been earning praise from critics and festival audiences as the franchise’s most accomplished title to date, which it certainly is. Guerrero’s American-bred nightmare vaults over March’s Treehouse as my favorite Into The Dark tale yet, brimming with patriotic anxiety and tragic relevance. Life inspires art in an explosive display of hatred under the guise of nationalism, drawing inspiration from the most obvious places: our backyards.
Martha Higareda stars as Marisol, a pregnant Mexican woman who, like so many, fantasizes about living the “American Dream.” But what happens when U.S. politicians forget those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Marisol’s border-crossing party is snatched up by border guards, she’s whisked away, then awakens in an idyllic US suburb to a caretaker-type named Betty (Barbara Crampton). Where is this Pleasantville, Nowhere town? Can everything be as propaganda-perfect as it seems? As Marisol finds out, the lengths some are willing to go for the “preservation” of America’s freedom is a xenophobic horror story – one that has no place for outsiders.
I mention Treehouse above because, coupled with Culture Shock, these are the only two Into The Dark segments so far to capitalize on urgency. As James Roday morphed the “Ides Of March” into a toxic masculinity takedown, Guerrero addresses one commander’s tweet-happy declarations for a US/Mexico wall and those who combat foreign “infestation.” Guerrero, of Mexican descent, does not feel welcome in a nation that so vocally wants to “Make America Great Again” through whitewashing means. Is this new “American Dream” worth forgoing heritage, culture, and individuality? Parts of Culture Shock feel like South Park brand nationalism (read: exaggerated yet poignant satire), but given how we find ourselves closer to living Mike Judge’s Idiocracy by the day, Guerrero handily conveys appropriate panic.
As Marisol acclimates to her “Cape Joy” surroundings, Americana staples are exploited like some far-right-wing Abercrombie holiday ad. A town populated by immigrants uniformed in pastel Izods, scarfing down hot dogs and apple pie, decorating communal spaces with red, white, and blue reinforcement. She recognizes fellow crossers, Santo (Richard Cabral) for one, but these now-happy “Americans” plaster concerning smiles on their faces with robotic presence. Guerrero not only turns food into this metaphor for blind (and disgusting) consumption of America’s tainted product (note the chewing noises), but comments on brainwashing as Marisol’s people are stripped of homeland signatures. To “live free” is to leave your past behind, including your sense of self.
It’s impossible not to feel a chill shoot up your spine when Creed Bratton’s “architect” utters how he’s not being paid to give “these people” the American Dream – he’s “paid to keep them out of it.”
Early scenes of Culture Shock explore Marisol’s failed first border crossing and the trauma immigrants endure when seeking American asylum, then Barbara Crampton flips the tone from Traffic to Happy Days. Who better than to play the All-American housewife than one of the horror genre’s bubbliest and most motherly-warm icons? The way she commits to her character’s cover-up (we’ll call it) sells both flag-waving pride and shaken insecurity. Shawn Ashmore the suit-and-tie mayoral veil of assurance, Bratton the aforementioned government representation with obvious nefarious intent. It’s all so Twilight Zone-y in that actors intend to oversell their sci-fi reality, and more importantly, never becomes a caricatured joke. What it means to “kill someone with kindness.”
Marisol’s journey is defined by Higareda’s ability to fight the desensitizing of her fellow Mexican immigrants. As Santos is commended for his party planning by Ashmore’s leader, Marisol uncovers the horrors behind her too-goo-to-be-true commune. Temporal gates, feeding tubes, and an alternate “solution” to America’s border issue. Newscasters spin lies, companies bid to mistreat foreigners hoping for a better life, and America’s redefined tolerance policies make for a gutwrenching assessment of current racial divides. Guerrero isn’t afraid to challenge viewers with social demonizing through an ambitious storytelling track, nor does she skimp on violence and visceral horror. No previous Into The Dark segment has felt this emboldened or realized.
Culture Shock is an alarming wake-up that dares to canonize how America is now perceived with a “Purge adjacent” twist. Guerrero is concerned, angry, and hopes you might be too. Our borders are meant to welcome those in desperate need, but social media rhetoric and the allowance of certain movements to thrive under current political regimes has morphed what we once knew to be the almighty “American Dream.” July’s Into The Dark anthem is a horror story as enthralling as it is condemning, holding a mirror to audiences who might otherwise be privileged enough to ignore such human neglect.
Don’t like politics in your “entertainment?” Tough. Voices like Gigi Saul Guerrero’s are defining horror’s evolution as filmmaker perspectives trend farther away from the same narratives we’ve seen over and over again. These are the modern horror stories that need to be told. It’s time for the undervalued and tokenized to stop being relegated to background filler. Culture Shock is another step forward towards more inclusive Hollywood representation and an impressive one at that, even if I’ll never look at pizza the same again.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
Cool Posts From Around the Web: