The crisis at the southern border of the United States doesn’t need supernatural elements to make it a prime candidate for horror. The situation is dire — as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently reiterated after a visit to a handful of Texas border facilities with other Democrat lawmakers. Children continue to be separated from their parents, while some of the holding cells are filled far beyond capacity, and conditions have so deteriorated that migrants were reportedly being held without access to basic hygiene, deprived of soap, and in some cases, told to drink water out of the toilet.
As a result, Culture Shock, the latest installment in Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced Into The Dark anthology series, doesn’t have to stretch the truth all that much in order to achieve the kind of nightmare-ish immigration scenario that will have you questioning how patriotic you’re feeling this Independence Day.
The film, which premieres on the streaming service July 4, marks the feature directorial debut of Gigi Saul Guerrero, from a script she co-wrote with Efren Hernandez and James Benson. With a majority Latinx cast and crew, Culture Shock, split fairly evenly between English and Spanish, is a Hollywood rarity. Altered Carbon’s Martha Higareda stars as Marisol, a pregnant woman living in Mexico who dreams of a better life in the United States. Emotionally and physically scarred by a trauma experienced during a past attempt to cross the border, she nonetheless hires a coyote, and sets off once more with a group of fellow immigrants.
But when something goes horribly wrong during the journey, Marisol suddenly finds herself in Cape Joy, a town that looks like a cross between The Stepford Wives and garishly pastelled Tim Burton suburbia, run by overly cheerful Mayor Tom (Shawn Ashmore). With no memory of how she got there, Marisol is informed by her host, Betty (Barbra Crampton) that she is now in the United States, along with her newly delivered baby girl. But despite the abundant pastries, pizza and promises of fabulous fireworks, it soon becomes clear that something is very off about this patriotic paradise.
It’s hard to watch Culture Shock without feeling the urge to compare it to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. After all, both films are Blumhouse-produced, messaged-based films, mining real-life situations and traumas to highlight the horror within in a way that is impossible to ignore. And yet, Guererro’s movie is very much its own work. The direction is stylish, slowly lulling viewers into the same false sense of security as Marisol with the apple pie trappings of Americana. Byron Werner’s cinematography sharply marks the contrast between the claustrophobic and bleakly muted tones that mirror how Marisol initially feels about her home country, and the bright, vibrant colors of the idyllic version of America she’s presented with. Her cautious restraint as she’s repeatedly gaslit into believing that her suspicions about her new home are the result of simple “culture shock” hits home for any woman who’s been in a similar situation. The problem isn’t with the system — it’s with you for not going along with it.
But what’s most striking about Culture Shock is how deftly is melds the larger critique of the myth of the American Dream with a strain of horror that feels distinctly feminine. A pervasive fear of sexual assault is at the center of this narrative, even as Marisol seeks revenge on the man who harmed her. Women — and especially women of color — aren’t safe in this world. What’s more, Higareda gives an intense and emotional performance that conveys that anxiety, even as her character refuses to be kept down by it.
I won’t spoil the film by giving away the secret to Cape Joy. But regardless of how improbable the whole thing might seem to some (although in fact, it’s really not that outlandish), what’s most unsettling about Culture Shock is that our current reality is even scarier. And that’s something to ponder as we head out for a red, white, and blue fireworks display of our own.