CULTURE SHOCK / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: GIGI SAUL GUERRERO / SCREENPLAY: EFREN HERNANDEZ, JAMES BENSON, GIGI SAUL GUERRERO / STARRING: MARTHA HIGAREDA, RICHARD CABRAL, SHAWN ASHMORE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (HULU)
Into the Dark is a Blumhouse-produced anthology series that streams monthly feature-length episodes, each themed around a different American holiday. Culture Shock, linked with Independence Day, follows desperate young Mexican Marisol as she attempts an illegal border crossing into the US and discovers a nightmare awaiting her.
The crux of the film involves Marisol’s new life in the town of Cape Joy, a tranquil settlement of primary colours and picket fence suburbia that portrays a pastiche of idyllic 1950s Americana that never actually existed. It’s soon clear to her that something is disturbingly wrong, least of all from her awakening every day with flawless hair and makeup and wearing identically-styled dresses in different shades of pastels. The sinister perfection of the town invokes a hybrid of The Stepford Wives and Get Out, while its populace, all of whom widely smile with more impossibly white teeth than an entire studio of children’s TV presenters, wouldn’t be out of place in the likes of Village of the Damned or Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
However, it’s a good half hour before Marisol even reaches the place, and the film could easily have begun with her awakening in her new home. But equally as important as the off-kilter setting of the latter two thirds of the film is Marisol’s arduous trek reaching it. With her story beginning in an unnamed Mexican town with seemingly every available surface plastered with posters of missing people, and young women being handed out contraceptives to protect against becoming pregnant should they be raped, it’s no wonder she needs to escape to a life that might hold a future other than despair and misery, however harrowing the journey might be.
Guerrero has dealt with the topic of border crossing before, in short films Dead Crossing and El Gigante, but never to an extent so embedded in its suffering. We practically breathe in the dusty arid air of the desert borderlands and feel the chill of the enveloping darkness under which the travellers must move lest they encounter the wrath of armed thrillseekers on both sides of the fence, while the unflinching depiction of the disregard, swindling and abuse that many people, especially lone women, are subjected to by amoral and opportunist coyotes makes for uncomfortable but essential viewing.
Back in the sun-soaked town of insidious purity, the characters’ bland clothing of polo shirts, slacks and blazers silently comments on the uniformity of appearance and behaviour the US expects of its immigrants in order to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture, while hypocritically never expecting that same standard from its natural born (white) citizens. The immigrant characters seem bewitched by a nebulous spell of conformity to which Marisol is somehow immune, and it’s more than a little telling that acts like speaking Spanish, singing the Mexican national anthem or reciting a prayer to Santa Muerte temporarily breaks it.
Culture Shock is a powerful and timely indictment of US immigration policy, particularly towards its neighbour to the south, and its attitude towards anyone with the audacity to be born outside its borders. The contempt is verbalised more clearly later in the film, although specifying how veers into spoiler territory due to taking place after a revelation that takes the film into the third of its evenly spaced trio of distinct acts. As for the story itself, it might be a fictional allegory with a fantastical setting and a disorienting structure but, even when everything artificial about the film is stripped away, still remaining is the all too authentic horror of reality.