Into the Dark is a series of low budget holiday-themed horror movies that Blumhouse produced for Hulu. IMDb and Wikipedia classify them as an anthology TV series like Masters of Horror, but Hulu presents them as individual movies, and they’re feature length. (For some reason I assumed they’d be shorts.) I decided to try out last year’s FLESH & BLOOD, one of the two Thanksgiving movies in the series so far.
Kimberly Tooms (Diana Silvers before BOOKSMART and GLASS) has just turned 17 in early November of 2018. Some time after Thanksgiving the year before her mother (Meredeth Salenger, EDGE OF HONOR) was murdered, and the case has not been solved. Since then she’s developed agoraphobia. She has a bit of a support group online, but Dr. Saunders (Tembi Locke, STEEL), the therapist who comes to the house to work with her, doesn’t think she’s making enough progress. When she follows her dad (Dermot Mulroney, COPYCAT – also about agoraphobia)’s encouragement to try to get an Amazon package off the porch she fails. The world turns blurry, dizzying, loud. She can’t function.
Her dad seems very cool and supportive. He’s in the middle of renovating the house, and the plastic sheets hanging everywhere seem to give her her space. He tries to be gentle and non-pushy about her therapy, her medication (which she hates) and his plans for them to try to have a Thanksgiving meal together. When Dr. Saunders asks if she’s shown any “extreme behavior” he gets defensive. He’s obviously biased, but from what we’ve seen it does really seem like a profound misunderstanding of this kid.
Here’s where the horror comes in. SPOILER. One night Kimberly is watching the news and notices that the file photo of a girl missing from nearby Encino shows her wearing a necklace awfully similar to the one her dad just gave her for her birthday. So it becomes a secret investigation: she waits for him to leave the house, then sneaks into his bedroom or the attic, or researches online, finding more clues pointing to him being a serial killer. Suddenly the only place in the world where she feels safe might be the very most dangerous one. She’s convinced enough that she attempts to go stay with an aunt, but when she runs out the door she might as well be seeing those dunes full of sandworms in BEETLEJUICE. Leaving the house is a no-go for her.
Instead she has to play everything-is-fine when he gets home, and fish around in conversation for more evidence, or preferably something that could convince her it was all a big misunderstanding. She tries valiantly to latch onto expectations that, from here at home, don’t seem very plausible.
So it’s mostly a two actor movie, and these two actors make it work. As in MA (the Blumhouse production she starred in this year), Silvers is very natural and easy to root for, showing her history of anguish in little expressions and gestures while trying to keep her head up. Mulroney creates this really warm, capable dad character and SLIGHTLY BIGGER SPOILER it could be argued he should stay in that mode all the way through to keep us guessing. Instead he flips the switch and makes it pretty clear that he’s evil as fuck, unless you interpret that part of his performance as the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator. He becomes a heavy-duty gaslighter, trying to convince Kimberly and others that her medication has made her paranoid.
This is a smart idea for a small budget movie. The single location doesn’t feel like a gimmick because it’s inseparable from the lead character and the conflict of the movie. The renovations establish some of the geography of the house and interesting ways for it to be used when the movie inevitably switches to cat-and-mouse mode.
I like my holiday horror to go waist deep into the seasonal theming. This isn’t one of those. Thanksgiving isn’t all that crucial to the plot, and could’ve easily been added to a pre-existing script to fit it into the series. But it fits pretty well because we generally associate Thanksgiving with families coming together and, you know, causing tension. I like that the title can mean both that they’re family and that there are gonna be some wounds. And it could also describe what you eat on Thanksgiving.
BIGGEST SPOILER. In the end I liked thinking back to the scene where Dr. Saunders and dad sort of argued about “confrontational therapy.” In the moment, he seems to be offended by the concept that his daughter could be angry or even violent toward her mother or him. In retrospect, it likely offends him because it’s true that he has such tendencies and he sees it as an attack on his genetics. His flesh & blood. And the cool irony is that yes, in fact she does end up being violent toward him, but it’s self defense rather than extreme behavior.
This one is directed by Patrick Lussier, the veteran editor of Wes Craven movies (NEW NIGHTMARE, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, SCREAM, SCREAM 2, SCREAM 3, CURSED, RED EYE) turned Miramax DTV director (THE PROPHECY 3, DRACULA 2000, DRACULA II, DRACULA III, WHITE NOISE 2) turned 3D-horror innovator (MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D, DRIVE ANGRY 3D). This proves he can be a solid director minus all the gimmicks (not that I’m against the gimmicks – bring back the gimmicks). Sadly, the disappointing box office of DRIVE ANGRY in 2011 caused the cancellation of the 3D sequel to Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II he was about to do, and he didn’t direct again until an episode of Scream: The Series in 2016. But then he did FLESH & BLOOD and he had a limited theatrical release this year called TRICK, so maybe things are rolling again.
BONUS MINI REVIEW FOR DESSERT: PILGRIM
This year Into the Dark did a new Thanksgiving one, PILGRIM, directed by Marcus Dunstan (THE COLLECTOR, THE COLLECTION). It’s undeniably a more holiday-infused entry, as it concerns a well-meaning suburban stepmother (Cobra Kai‘s Courtney Henggeler) who hires mysterious pilgrim re-enactors to act out the first Thanksgiving with her family. The pilgrims (who are so serious about it they seem like time travelers) show up early, stay at the house and try to teach the sinners a superior way of life.
I like the strangeness of the premise, as well as the underlying satirical notion: stepmom Anna romanticizes the old days when families were close and didn’t stare at their phones all day, but doesn’t consider pretty big drawbacks like the men being religious zealots who got off on oppressing women and punishing so-called sinners. Stepdaughter Cody (Reign Edwards, HELL FEST) recognizes this before the pilgrims show up, but it’s not until around the time of the backyward witch trials that everybody else catches on.
Edwards is charismatic and attractive, and gets a good laugh when she deadpans a joke about her friends having Nazi re-enactors. But as scripted I think her character comes off as too much of a close-minded jerk. She could try to play along and be nice a little bit, since she has plenty of chances to cynically joke and vent with her boyfriend (Taj Speights, Teen Wolf, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ballers), but she stays in constant dismissive sarcasm mode, and it seems like she’s just not being fair to her stepmom or the rest of her family, let alone the guests that as far as she knows are just innocent people doing a job.
Bigger problem: the pilgrims aren’t all that scary, so I wish they were more fun to watch. Peter Giles (who will play The Collector in the upcoming part 3 of the THE COLLECTOR series, THE COLLECTED) as their leader, Ethan, always plays it as evil-guy-pretending-to-be-nice. I wish he could either be a little mega or humorously oblivious to how out of line he is. The serious way they play it just kind of bummed me out, so although the movie really pulled me in early on I got kind of tired of watching by the last act. I guess I would appreciate a little more of an UNCLE SAM or JACK FROST vibe where there’s kind of a silent agreement that it’s okay to be ludicrous even though it acts like it’s being serious.
That said there’s some good absurdity, like when Cody comes home to find Ethan now living in an old-timey shed he built in the backyard. And it’s funny that Ethan keeps talking about gratitude, in order to stay on theme. There’s a really cool shot with the camera attached to Cody as she’s dunked underwater, reminding me of the windmill in Russel Mulcahy’s “Wild Boys” video. And the whole experience does bring the family closer – chopping up evil pilgrims together. So it definitely has plenty to offer, and I’ll understand if you disagree with me about FLESH & BLOOD being the better of the two.
Anyway happy Thanksgiving everybody. I am thankful for you reading this low key review of obscure streaming-only titles. Good luck with your family (or lack thereof), and may we all have all the sweet potatoes we want.