[Cinepocalypse 2019 Review] Into the Dark: Culture Shock

It’s almost July. A time in America where people celebrate American Independence. And if you thought Blumhouse would let this holiday go unobserved in their monthly Hulu series Into the Dark…well, you probably haven’t been watching very closely.

Culture Shock announces its intentions before the credits even end with intercuts of Fox News-esqe talking heads talking about…well things that Fox News likes to talk about. Migrant caravans. Illegal immigration. Stealing our jobs. Bringing disease. The wall. You know, a typical day in Fox land. Accompanying this is a warbled and warped version of “America the Beautiful” with the tinny sound that comes from being blared from a loudspeaker.

“When will action be taken to end American suffering?” the newscaster asks.

We’re then quickly introduced to Marisol (Martha Higareda) and her boyfriend Oscar (Felipe de Lara), who plan to pay a Coyote to take them across the border, to the American dream where things are, in her words, “Super nice.” This attempt is glossed over, but the end result is she lost $8k and was raped by her boyfriend, who left her pregnant and alone. With the help of a support group for unwed mothers, she’s determined to give her baby a life in the promised lands of America. So she tracks down the Coyote again.

This time, she finds herself joined by an orphaned kid from Guatemala named Ricky (Ian Inigo) and a tattooed and dangerous-looking man named Santo Cristobal (Richard Cabral). Fighting obstacles including violence and the cartels, Marisol finally makes it to America, where she meets Betty (Barbara Crampton) and Thomas (Shawn Ashmore) and everything seems perfect. But something sinister lies behind the pastel wonders of The Land of Plenty…

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Culture Shock feels like a Twilight Zone episode broken into three parts. The first act of the film involves Marisol’s attempts to get to America and it is harrowing. Director Gigi Saul Guerrero and her cinematogapher Byron Werner utilize a desaturated color scheme full of browns and grays and a shaky-cam, guerilla filmmaking style that enhances the fear of the early sections. This is thrown in stark contrast when she finally makes it to America, in the second act, and is surrounded in a pastel, candy-coated land that feels straight out of 1950s Americana.

Barbara Crampton imbues Betty, a midwife taking care of Marisol and her baby, with a mellifluously whispered voice. The perfect housewife in a perfect land of plenty. She’s a smiling beacon of hope, laughing where appropriate with a smile plastered on her face. Baked goods fill her kitchen in bright and enticing colors. Outside, the town is preparing for The 4th of July celebration and you can’t turn without being smacked in your face with American flags. It’s a picture perfect encapsulation of American pride, in a small town venue.

But look a little closer. See the kids with their unnatural smiles. The townsfolk who only speak in platitudes and small talk. The story by Gigi, James Benson and Efrén Hernández feels directly inspired by the same kind of All-American Small Town goodness of The Stepford Wives and Barbara’s Betty would fit perfectly in that world. But Gigi’s perspective matters here, as she trains her eye on the desire for The American Dream™, a dream that, in reality, exploits those that are the most defenseless.

At 90 minutes, Culture Shock feels a little overlong and by the time the third act twists spirals it in another direction, I was ready for it to end. But the intent here is admirable and the themes explored incredibly interesting. One thing I admire about the Into the Dark series is that it’s giving first time feature directors, like Gigi Saul Guerrero and Chelsea Stardust a start. And while Culture Shock isn’t without issues and pacing problems, it heralds a fantastic talent in Gigi. It’s definitely one of the better Into the Dark entries and I can’t wait to see what Gigi tackles next.