In what seems long overdue, Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, Halloween)’s first horror film to be directed by a woman is the latest installment of Hulu’s Into the Dark anthology series: Culture Shock. Helmed by Gigi Saul Guerrero (El Gigante), Culture Shock has a very simple premise that is truthful, blunt, and puts a face to the countless headlines we are quickly becoming numb to as a culture. To talk about this film and ignore the wider issue at hand that it is dealing with—the current immigration crisis along the Southern Border of the United States—would be an outright injustice. That would be doing Guerrero’s film a disservice when she has done with Culture Shock what a good artist does in desperate times: become a voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power. In a tale that seems almost too strange for fiction, Culture Shock should fucking scare you.
There’s nothing humane about what is happening to people traveling from Latin American countries in beyond perilous conditions to get to a country that spits in their face. It’s easy to turn off the news or just not read the paper. If there’s one thing Americans are excellent at, it’s burying their heads in the sand.
Guerrero, like so many great filmmakers, knows that a good genre story can shine a light on all sorts of darkness that the world would just rather stay in the shadows. It’s films like Culture Shock that light up that darkness. There is a crisis at the Southern Border on the American side. It’s a crisis of conscience and human decency. Culture Shock weaves elements of The Stepford Wives (1972), The Twilight Zone, and the simple reality of the situation to tell a visually arresting tale of the chase of the American Dream…and the truth that it has always been a false bill of goods.
That’s really what is being dissected in Culture Shock: the idea of the American Dream. This notion that everyone can come to America, no matter who they are, and earn a decent living that will afford them a middle-class lifestyle and enough money in the bank for the kid’s college. It’s a nice, beautiful dream…that has become a complete lie. The dream has perhaps never been as universal in practice as it reads on paper. It always seemed almost exclusively for men with or born into money, and more importantly, those that had the right skin color. Nevertheless, the idea of the American Dream has refused to die, and despite everything, people still leave their situations in search of a better home, only to be confronted by the harsh realization that all dreams can easily become a nightmare.
The horrors start at the very beginning of Culture Shock as Guerrero drops the audience right in the middle of the darkest of places. A young Mexican woman named Marisol (Martha Higereda) is being raped by her boyfriend Oscar (Felip de Lara) while in the desert attempting to illegally cross the Mexican-American border.
How can it get darker from raping a woman already in a deadly situation? Somehow, Guerrero pulls it off. Flash forward a few months and a pregnant Marisol tracks down the coyote (Sal Lopez) who apparently left her out in the desert as she was being raped…after she paid a hefty sum to cross the border. Marisol talks the coyote into letting her join an upcoming group in an attempt to cross over into the U.S. again. Only this time, Marisol is pregnant and the trip is nothing that most Americans could handle on their best day.
She takes the risk because, as the coyote implies himself, so many Latinx Americans believe the lie that Americans also believe. The biggest difference is it’s not a lie of convenience for people of color fleeing horrific gang and drug violence that exists in large part because of U.S. demand for narcotics. America is founded on such a powerful lie that Marisol, who has already been raped and left in the desert for dead once, is willing to try to take the same journey again while pregnant. Think about what a powerful lie that is. Guerrero perfectly sells this point in Culture Shock from the opening credits. They play over a montage of Fox News-like headlines showing people of color as newscasters recite dog whistles like terrorist and illegal. It’s impossible to escape the reality of the situation.
The first half of Culture Shock really shows the true life horrors of actually attempting to illegally cross the border and the psychological effect that American lie has on people who are actually just trying to better themselves the same way others’ grandparents did not that long ago. The coyotes are abusive and Marisol almost suffers another rape. Nothing is enough for her to turn back though. They’re constantly jerked around and told to pay more and more money for no reason other than simple greed. They have to live, sleep, and do everything else in the desert for however long the journey will take with very little food and water.
Guerrero goes into great detail in the first half of Culture Shock to set up a great story that really shows what it’s like, through the eyes of Marisol, to attempt to cross the border from Mexico into America. Culture Shock also points out that although Marisol can’t see it when she’s first introduced, she has all the home and love she needs at home and what she’s specifically chasing seems to be more of an inner peace which she thinks she’ll find in the U.S. Spoiler alert: she finds anything but.
The first half of Culture Shock builds to a breaking point as Marisol travels through the desert with the rest of the small group of migrants, following closely to the coyote’s instructions. Guerrero depicts all of this as realistically as possible, especially in the way that the camera is used. Everything is slightly disorienting, as running and hiding through the desert at night from all sorts of things would most certainly be.
After being truly in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marisol finds herself running right smack into U.S. Border Patrol agents before passing out. That’s when Culture Shock really takes off and leaves orbit. Barbara Crampton (Reanimator, We Were Always Here) just keeps knocking every role thrown her way out of the park. She’s a wonderful character actor that is just a joy to see back on the screen again.
After Marisol passes out at the U.S.-Mexico border, she wakes up in a vibrant, beautiful world that is said to be America. She’s in Betty (Crampton)’s home, and everything really is just perfect. It’s like a candy-colored Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Crampton shines in the role of Betty as a more modern, sinister take on the classic Stepford Wives.
The mayor of this Pleasantville looking town is Thomas, played by Shawn Ashmore (The Following). He’s also very well cast as an affable-seeming fellow that is really good at keeping secrets. He’s the kind of guy that you want to trust, but deep down you know he’s just not telling you the truth. The town is only populated with Latinx Americans and white suburbanites who all seem just a little bit off like Betty. The mid-section of Culture Shock really is beautiful and absolutely disturbing. It does The Twilight Zone better than anything in this year’s CBS reboot.
It has that perfect mix of a beautiful sunny day with something sinister lurlking just underneath the surface. In Culture Shock, the colors are full of pastels and red-white-and-blues. The unnamed town is preparing for the upcoming 4th of July holiday after all. It doesn’t take long for Marisol to realize that something is seriously off with not just Betty, but everything that’s happening since she woke up in America.
All of the other Latinx people in the town slowly start to become more and more familiar to Marisol until she realizes that she actually knows them. These were the people that she crossed with, except they don’t seem to remember who they are. They’re also all strangely acting as white as Pat Boone and stuffing junk food like pizza and hot dogs into their mouths with an unnatural fervor. Little cracks start to appear in the fabric of the town’s reality, and Marisol seems to notice when everyone else doesn’t. It’s like a glitch in The Matrix (1999) and Marisol is the only one that can see that something isn’t right in this Eisenhower-era looking neighborhood.
Nothing seems right in Culture Shock because nothing is. Marisol can see through the bullshit until she wakes herself up from “the town” she’s in and finds herself to be part of a medical experiment in a dingy facility at the U.S.-Mexico border. She never made it across. She was taken against her will by U.S. scientists and placed in a simulator. It’s so insulting and disgusting.
Shawn Ashmore is actually one of the doctors that works at the facility. After the first viewing of Culture Shock it would be easy to think that he’s the one white savior character in the film, but Guerrero’s work is too smart for that. Think about it and you’ll realize that he went along with the technological enslavement of brown people so they could experience the American Dream before realizing it was actually a falsehood. That’s perhaps the most banal evil idea in the entire film. Couple that with the fact that Thomas thinks the simulator is actually helping the prisoners trapped inside by feeding them a lie, and it is just unconscionable.
Culture Shock is an extremely worthy and important entry into Hulu’s horror anthology holiday series Into the Dark. What a bold middle finger to the current establishment to have a 4th of July episode written and directed by a woman of color in a film about the horrors of the immigrant experience on both sides of the Southern border. The trip is physically taxing, emotionally scarring, and dangerous, but once one arrives to a country that purports to be a nation of immigrants but is no longer welcoming, the situation only gets worse as people are dehumanized at best and imprisoned at worst.
By the time Attwood (Creed Bratton), the mad scientist and Thomas’ superior, reveals himself, Marisol is well on her way to escaping Betty and the simulation all together. Something that none of these computer systems ever seem to take into account is the power of the human will to overcome falsehoods at all costs.
Culture Shock shows the truth: that the U.S. government isn’t paid to bring people into the American Dream, it’s paid to keep people out. They are getting exceedingly good at it, and Gigi Saul Guerrero is here to shine a spotlight on the current social climate while also weaving a classic genre story. The shift in styles and dive from realistic nightmare to a much more surrealistic one really sets Culture Shock apart from many of the other installments in the franchise.
Barabara Crampton has also never been scarier than she is here as Betty. She plays the perfect American suburban housewife…with just a little something sinister bubbling underneath. Her performance is playful and deliciously evil. Lesser talents may not have walked the balance the character of Betty requires, but Crampton pulls it off. Jason Blum has finally put some money where his mouth is with this latest edition of Into the Dark. It turns out there are plenty of women filmmakers out there with more than a little something to add to the genre conversation with plenty of skill after all.