Last night's festivities at the Music Box Theater's Cinepocalypse festival included a special presentation of “Into the Dark: Culture Shock,” the next film in Hulu and Blumhouse’s monthly holiday horror series, which also had its trailer release today. This July 4th-based installment, directed by rising filmmaker Gigi Saul Guerrero, feels very much like it came from Blumhouse—it could easily take place in the worlds of “The Purge” or “Get Out,” while telling of a Mexican immigrant who comes to America and encounters disturbing artifice. But "Culture Shock" has an anger, mystery, and unflinching perspective that makes it stand out, serving up the type of socio-political horror that is both compelling to watch and primed to start some debates.
The movie starts with an opening credit sequence that flashes news clips and shocking, foreshadowing imagery, accompanied by “America the Beautiful”—very “Purge”-like down to the song, and maybe an opening credit sequence worth skipping. But then "Culture Shock" throws you right into the life of Marisol (Martha Higareda in a very strong performance) a pregnant Mexican woman (the result of a traumatic rape) who wants to get to America, a place that the men around her call “super nice.” There are so many factors that say Marisol shouldn't do the journey—including that she's due to give birth any day now, she's already been ripped off trying to migrate before—but she persists. Guerrero has a very lean approach to her storytelling in this part of the story, showing matter-of-factly the unpredictable process of how a woman like Marisol would get from small village to the American border—including all of the people who would rip her and others off along the way. It’s telling within the big picture of "Culture Shock" that this part has a horror element of its own, showing the vulnerability that she and others have when venturing through darkness to an uncertain destination.
Marisol does make it to the border—in a tense scene that involves being chased by murderous cartel members—and suddenly wakes up in a hyper dreamy, cream-colored world. She’s in a town called Cape Joy, and it’s scary as hell: Everyone is indeed super nice, including her host Betty (Barbara Crampton, her piercing gaze and smile working overtime) and the other pastel-wearing, smile-plastered residents, who are working to build a 4th of July display at a gazebo. It’s not long before Marisol starts to notice the artifice of this world—just as Marisol is shown to be heroically stubborn in the previous chapters, she's incredibly conscious of what’s around her. Soon, she starts to unravel the truth about the America before her eyes.
Written by James Benson, Efren Hernandez and Gigi Saul Guerrero, “Culture Shock” has characters who are straight-forward enough (like a man who migrates with her and is then transformed, named Santo [Richard Cabral]) and an ultimate horror scheme that comes with equal shock and obviousness. Whether you more or less agree with the movie and its critique on the United States—which does not present America as place that anyone, citizen or immigrant, should simply accept as is—you get what the movie wants to say.
Yet while those factors might sink some other movies, “Culture Shock” boasts Guerrero's assured, scrappy direction, which is divided into three very different looking thirds, each with their own visual edge. And when it wants to be gross (like listening to and watching the robotic citizens of Cape Joy stuff food into their mouths) or wants to be in-your-face with violence (as in a third-act explosion of gore) it works. The world of “Culture Shock” always feels like a tangible B-movie nightmare, and it can be as visceral as it is thoroughly American.
Guerrero was in attendance for the screening, and spoke a little bit afterward about the process of making “Culture Shock.” She talked about coming into the project, when it was only a script, and with an infectious smile shared that she told the people at Blumshouse that she was going to make it “so Mexican.” Throughout “Culture Shock,” there are important cultural flourishes—even the way that it flashes Spanish credits in its opening credits, or along with its fully subtitled first third. It feels specific, yet inclusive. The film welcomes all to see America through the eyes of a migrant, and it’s not a vision of horror you'll soon forget.