Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the series premiere of Into the Dark, “The Body.”
Holiday horror films are often the site of schlocky good fun, so when Blumhouse began developing Hulu’s Into the Dark, a monthly holiday horror anthology series, it was entering into a hallowed canon of silly entertainments. Of course, it’s launching in October, and of course, it starts off with Halloween. It’s a great premise, but, as director Paul Davis and his co-writer Paul Fisher’s first entry in the series proves, having a great premise only goes so far—especially with horror, where off-the-wall camp has its own language. “The Body” proves to be willfully illiterate to its own native tongue.
Wilkes (Tom Bateman) is a hitman operating on Halloween. Or, rather, he’s something between a Terminator and a Hannibal Lecter impression operating on Halloween—all but eating a tasty piece of liver as Davis and Fisher figured out the perfect gross-out hedonist food (casu marzu). A seemingly emotionless, dry-yet-fancy, endlessly-pontificating killer that we follow, initially, hoping to see how he’s going to dispose of “The Body.” Eventually, though, we feel so shackled to the stereotype we’re left waiting to see if there’s a twist at the end, or if he really is this far up his own ass.
He meets a social-climbing, fast-talking party boy (David Hull, wearing an incredible T-shirt that says “#ME”) and his friends (in more lackluster attire), whom Wilkes uses to escape a tricky situation as he attempts to transport his latest kill under the guise of an elaborate costume. It’s Weekend at Bernie’s, but with the childish attitude of someone who says, “I’m not lying, you just assumed and I didn’t correct you.” Hull plays the doomed dummy perfectly, being both instantly hateable yet charming enough to make us care about his fate.
Though American Psycho gets name-checked before Silence of the Lambs (which is alluded to plenty clearly by Ray Santiago’s on-the-nose costume, anyway), it’s really Lecter who seems to be the Bateman’s touchstone here: He grimaces at modernity and its bastardized, unsophisticated pleasures. During a party scene, he seems not only disgusted by translucent hot pants and the thrumming EDM, but by the very way it’s shot—all tiny, hyperactive zooms that cut as quickly as the strobe light. He’s a murderous Kevin McClane from American Vandal.
Once it settles down from establishing its horror bona fides (always gotta have some obnoxious youths), the episode finds its way to more interesting territory, less polluted by the ubiquitous horror cocktail of homage and reference—though some guy does puke trying to do a shot for every Friday the 13th movie, and a single good Elijah Wood joke rises above the deluge.
Rebecca Rittenhouse, cornering Wilkes at the party to talk historical sexism, gives a performance of the same pitch as Hull’s and just as effective. (Santiago does the same, albeit much more broadly.) All are supposed to be mosquitoes in Wilkes’ ear, but since the latter’s such a boring, Reddit-dwelling, Fight Club-humping nihilist, it’s hard not to wish the mosquitoes were much bigger, deadlier, and quicker with their work. It’s even worse when Rittenhouse’s character, Maggie, takes a turn for the capital-C Cool Girl when she’s wooed by a philosophy that sounds a little like if How I Met Your Mother’s Barney knew where to buy knives.
Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t have the good sense to limit or restrict its characters, which means the plot builds tense situations only to defuse them with goobers (who seem especially stupid, even by horror standards) running amok. The latter gets so ridiculous that it actually makes light of olice brutality, which, if it didn’t use body-cam footage, I’d think was impossible. In fact, much of the narrative makes no sense at all after the characters are initially established, though “established” is a strong word to use for Aurora Perrineau’s Dorothy, the other girl in the group.
The fundamental problem is that overwritten dialogue has been brought in to compensate for the simple, clever, yet underwritten premise to eat up time. It all adds up to boredom when the potential scenarios to come out of said premise—or the settings—aren’t explored. Play with the escape room, play with the graveyard, play with the funeral home or the hardware store: The refusal to do so just makes the episode feel cheap, like the edges of the sets are hiding just off camera. This attitude also robs the world and its characters of any energy, as scenes float by like placeholders where the writers scribbled [add momentum] in the margins. Everyone gets simultaneously breathy and dead in the eyes as they go through the horror motions. “The Body” even has a hardcore groaner of a hacking scene thrown in for good measure, in case we weren’t completely detached from the story. Each plot point pokes its sharpened tongue straight through the cheek, drawing far more blood than the episode’s disappointing kills.
In its premiere, Into the Dark spends so much time noodling with the plot that when it reaches a climax, it’s as emotionally murky as it is visually. People die, as you might expect, and the anticipation of having the rug pulled out from under us with an episode-restructuring twist begins feeling more and more like waiting for a surprise party when nobody remembered your birthday. With the premise of a B-movie, the execution of an afterthought, and the entertainment value of an ex-boyfriend’s Men’s Rights vlogs, “The Body” doesn’t bode well for the series’ future. But that’s the good thing about an anthology: November’s got a new director and writer, possibly ones that will find more things to explore with their horror than humorless self-importance.
Into the Dark’s “The Body” is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.