As Chicago’s Cinepocalypse Film Festival winds down, it’s nice to see that its late-in-the-game programming can still surprise. To wit: Who would’ve thought a big-screen airing of the latest episode of Hulu’s sometimes lackluster horror anthology series would produce one of the biggest audience responses of the entire festival?
The streaming service’s Into The Dark received a rare appearance in cinemas on the penultimate night of the festival, and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving installment. “Culture Shock” (Grade: B) is a witty and provocative arrow aimed straight at the heart of the country’s current border crisis, and it couldn’t have come at a more timely moment. There are honest-to-god debates happening about whether or not to call the abusive camps in which our country has interned thousands of innocents “concentration camps.” Aside from the logic of being historically accurate to the term, if you find yourself trying to argue that the places where kids are dying thanks to often violent imprisonment aren’t technically concentration camps, good god are you on the wrong side of history. And the new episode of this series goes straight into the danger, fear, and terror of the situation, in ways that are rarely depicted with such honesty (or cleverly weighted metaphor).
The film focuses on Marisol (Martha Higareda), a pregnant Mexican woman attempting to illegally cross the border into America, in large part to try and give a fresh start to her unborn child. Going into intimate detail about the unsettling and horrific aspects of such a decision (as well as the painful emotional fallout emanating from the choice to make the dangerous trek), “Culture Shock” derives much of its power from an unexpected twist: After seemingly getting caught between the Mexican drug cartel and American border agents during their passage, Marisol comes to in a small American town, where the residents appear to have made a decision to welcome its newest immigrants with open arms, illegal status and all. She soon finds herself making friends with everyone in the idyllic burg, including the friendly woman (genre pro Barbara Crampton) who has opened her house to Marisol and her new child, and the town leader (Shawn Ashmore) dead set on making it a welcoming place for all.
It’s a horror series, so there’s no spoiler warning required to say things are not what they appear, and soon enough, Marisol is fighting for her life. But what is worth noting is the degree to which director Gigi Saul Guerrero doesn’t shy away from the cross-cultural elements of the story, instead stressing how language and birthplace have exceedingly little to do with one’s humanity or empathy. As she noted in a post-screening Q&A, the original script didn’t quite capture the nature of Mexican identity or culture, leading her to shepherd a reworking of the narrative to nearly a 50-50 split between Spanish and English dialogue. She stressed that Blumhouse, the production company behind Into The Dark, couldn’t have been more supportive—“They said, ‘Come back when you’re finished,’” she laughed, after mentioning how often she checked in for approval—and as a result, she leaned into the culture-clash message of the film, going so far as to post different Mexican slang every morning on the walls of the production offices, in hopes of inculcating in the staff a little more of the authentic vibe she was going for.
But she also didn’t shy away from the horror of the story, and in this case, that required remarkably little embellishment, even with the episode’s reality-breaking twist that we won’t spoil here. Because what “Culture Shock” does so well is convey the horror of a simple struggle for existence, and the even-worse horror of coming to a new land, only to find the people there don’t find you worthy of bare existence in their vicinity. Marisol’s journey is plenty traumatic before anyone in the United States tries to deny her entrance, and the subsequent realization of her isolated and precarious situation is repeatedly hammered home in the ways she tries to find some stability in her new surroundings.
Guerrero’s film can be positively compared to Joe Dante’s episode of Masters Of Horror, “Homecoming,” in that it tackles a highly volatile political issue without recourse to any “very fine people on both sides” nonsense. And it shares with that horror master’s production a fondness for gallows humor—whereas Dante focused on zombies of the Iraq War returning home to voice their displeasure at being pawns in a meaningless conflict, she trains her camera’s eye on the impersonal cruelty of those tasked with ignoring the base humanity of people seeking shelter and opportunity. There is no after-school special moralizing (thankfully), but ultimately, “Culture Shock” goes above and beyond the everyday, in narratively satisfying ways befitting its status as an elevated satire of the real-life crisis in which we find ourselves. But its tension and fear is all too real—and until we find a way to end the sadistic camps established by Immigration And Customs Enforcement, and bring some humanity to the process of our immigration policy, this installment of Into The Dark serves as a potent harbinger of the brutality we have allowed into our country’s workaday existence.