Into the Dark, Hulu’s collaboration with Blumhouse, seemed like a bit of a gimmick when it was first announced: a new horror film every month, themed to tie in with an upcoming holiday. But the series has been surprisingly diverse, particularly when it comes to tone—and “Culture Shock,” the Fourth of July entry, is maybe the bleakest Into the Dark yet.
This month’s holiday is, of course, Independence Day, and it comes from co-writer and director Gigi Saul Guerrero. She’s the third woman to create an Into the Dark episode (after “New Year, New You” from Sophia Takal, and “All that We Destroy” from Chelsea Stardust), an encouraging sign that Blumhouse is making good on its efforts to bring more women into the fold. But it’s not just the fact that she’s a woman working in the horror genre that makes Guerrero uniquely suited to tell a tale like “Culture Shock.” Her background—she was born in Mexico and moved to Canada as a young teen—also helps lend the story more authenticity.
After an opening-credits montage that spoils the episode’s big twist (fortunately, it’s a pretty obvious twist to begin with), we meet Marisol (Altered Carbon’s Martha Higareda), who’s very near the end of her pregnancy but is still determined to make her way to America. She’s seeking a better life, but she’s also curious as to the whereabouts of her baby’s father, a scumbag ex who raped her before stealing her money and crossing the border without her. Higareda’s expressive performance lets us know that Marisol is a kind, genuine person, but she’s also trapped in a cycle of intimidation and abuse—a hell that follows her to the border on a brutal journey riddled with the worst kinds of men.
But just when we (and she) think Marisol is about to be captured, she wakes up in a picture-perfect house in a picture-perfect town where everyone’s speaking English, though previously the episode had been in subtitled Spanish. The home appears to belong to Betty (horror icon Barbara Crampton), who’d be just like a Stepford Wife except she doesn’t seem to have a husband. She just has Marisol...oh, and Marisol’s baby, though Marisol doesn’t at all remember giving birth.
That’s just the first of many red flags that a very disoriented Marisol soon notices. Another big one is that she sees tons of other Mexican people (and immigrants from other countries) all around town, but they all have the same weirdly cheerful, robotic demeanor—including Santo (Richard Cabral), who looks and acts nothing like the tattooed tough guy she’d met just days prior while heading to the border.
The big reveal of “Culture Shock” is not its point—again, it’s something you’ll figure out for yourself right away, even if you don’t pay close attention to the opening credits. But what Marisol soon figures out is that the candy-colored American town that’s excitedly prepping for July 4 exists only in a computer program; in real life, Marisol and her fellow undocumented immigrants are unconscious in a grimy lab with their brains hooked into a virtual-reality network. From the two white dudes running the lab—Atwood (Creed Bratton), who is cynically evil, and Thomas (Shawn Ashmore), whose conscience is starting to poke at him—we learn that it’s an experimental prison of sorts, funded by the Pentagon as a futuristic “holding cell” for immigrants.
“I know this is all difficult to bear. It’s upsetting. But you must not let it distract you from the big picture,” the older man lectures his subordinate. “Nobody gives a fuck about these people, Tom. This way, they’re not crowding up the prisons, they’re not being separated from their kids, they’re not being physically mistreated. Tax money is saved to be used long-term for good. Now that is a small cost to pay for all this, isn’t it?”
Atwood’s simplification of the situation is frightening, considering that Marisol is being pumped full of tranquilizers and subjected to mental and physical trauma in the hours before she’s about to give birth. Even worse, it’s made clear that none of the young kids who’ve been forced into the program have survived. Marisol manages to spark a mass awakening and subsequent jailbreak (doling out some violent payback to her rapist, another unwilling “patient,” on the way out) but the sadness over the lost children—especially Ricky (Ian Inigo), a shy orphan she met on the crossing—lingers, as well as the intense anger that the U.S. would even facilitate such a cruel, dehumanizing “solution” in the first place.
“Culture Shock” isn’t particularly subtle, and its question-reality framework has already been explored in greater depth by movies like The Matrix and Sleep Dealer. But the fact that Guerrero couches what’s usually a sci-fi trope in a horror setting, and uses it so explicitly to address a real-world human-rights issue, is notable.
Into the Dark hasn’t been a series that’s been too interested in politics thus far, but America’s current immigration policy was taken to task during the recent first season of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot—though the episode, “Point of Origin,” took a more metaphorical approach. It also featured a Stepford-ish housewife, a woman whose foggy memories of her very early childhood hint at unusual experiences she can’t quite explain—until she’s snatched up by a shadowy group that’s like ICE meets the Men in Black, locked up in a detention center, and informed that she’s an illegal visitor from another dimension who’s about to be sent back “home.”
“Culture Shock” and “Point of Origin” are both reacting to similar issues, and they both put a chilling new perspective on what’s already a deeply chilling reality. But despite its fanciful tech subplot, “Culture Shock” is a way more personal and grounded story, and that makes it so much more terrifying. Honestly, it’s not that difficult to imagine that Marisol’s nightmare is something that would seem like a nifty course of action for certain American politicians—you know, the ones who already live, breathe, and tweet the notion that “nobody gives a fuck about these people.”
Into the Dark’s “Culture Shock” premieres July 4 on Hulu.
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