Every horror anthology needs a hook, and Hulu’s new series Into the Dark has a good one. Beginning this Friday, October 5th, and once a month for the next year, Hulu and the production and distribution company Blumhouse will release a feature-length film — 12 in all — tied to a seasonally appropriate holiday. The premise is loose enough to allow Into the Dark’s roster of writers and directors room to tell a wide variety of stories, all united by a common fascination with cultural celebrations and gruesome violence.
“Holiday horror” is a popular subgenre — think: Halloween, Black Christmas, and My Bloody Valentine — but Into the Dark throws viewers a curveball right at the start. The Body, based on a short film by writer-director Paul Davis and co-writer Paul Fisher (who both also made the longer version), stars Tom Bateman as Wilkes, an ice-cold contract killer who, over the course of one long night, has trouble transporting a corpse across town. Wilkes catches a break because the streets are filled with costumed revelers, who all think his blood-streaked business suit and plastic-wrapped cadaver are a hoot. Though it’s set on Halloween, The Body is more darkly comic than scary.
That kind of twist isn’t unusual for Blumhouse Productions. Founded by Jason Blum in 2000 and originally dedicated to the idea that there’s good money to be made from releasing shoestring-budgeted genre films by smart storytellers, Blumhouse hit it big in 2009 with Paranormal Activity. Since then, the studio has become known for more polished fare like the Insidious and Purge franchises. For the past decade, Blum has also made the most of the industry leverage that a massive box office can buy, backing ambitious, genre-bending movies like The Bay, Whiplash, Unfriended, Get Out, Happy Death Day, and BlacKkKlansman.
The movie and TV business could use more companies like Blumhouse, which combines populist impulses with good taste and gives money to filmmakers like James Wan, Mike Flanagan, Joel Edgerton, Jon M. Chu, and Ti West. These are directors who take chances and try to make pictures that’ll stand the test of the time. Those bets don’t always pay off: Chu is riding high right now with Crazy Rich Asians, but his Blumhouse musical Jem and the Holograms was a bust. (However, Jem was so inexpensive to make that it barely qualifies as a flop.)
All this is a way of saying that while Into the Dark’s The Body is, for the most part, a big swing that misses, it fails in a way that speaks to Blumhouse’s core values. Even when the anthology was originally announced back in January, Blumhouse Television co-presidents Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold spoke about the bargains they strike with their writers and directors: creative freedom within the restrictions of time, budget, and subject matter.
That’s similar to the arrangement Roger Corman’s New World Pictures had with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, and John Sayles in the 1970s. If these hungry cinephiles could produce something violent and / or sexy enough to sell to a decent-sized audience, Corman let them fill in the gaps with art.
In the case of The Body, Davis and Fisher deliver some of the key elements of an exploitation film — namely, a handful of gory murders — between scenes that balance gruesome slapstick with high-minded philosophizing. As Wilkes is dragging his latest victim through the streets on Halloween night, he crosses paths with a group of trust fund hipsters (played by Ash vs Evil Dead’s Ray Santiago, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s David Hull, and Blumhouse regular Aurora Perrineau) as well as an intellectual young lady named Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse) who’s turned on by his lethality. About a third of this 90-minute film is about bumbling artsy types trying to figure out what to do when they get stuck babysitting a corpse, and another third has Wilkes and Maggie carrying on a long conversation about how a daily awareness of human mortality can strengthen a person’s will.
Neither of these sections works particularly well. The cast is capable, but the scenes with the body aren’t funny enough, and Wilkes and Maggie’s chat isn’t deep enough. What does work is the movie’s remaining third — mostly the final 20 minutes — where nearly every character is in some kind of mortal danger but has a hard time finding anyone who’ll take them seriously because of the general holiday craziness.
Even when the tension rises and the blood starts spurting, The Body lacks the sense of deeper purpose that animates the best Blumhouse productions. Davis and Fisher poke fun at the pretensions of young folks in their late 20s and early 30s, and they riff some on the stereotype of the steely assassin. None of this is terrible, but it doesn’t feel essential, either.
Hulu provided two Into the Dark films to critics in advance, but details on the second, November’s Flesh & Blood, are under embargo until later this month. I am allowed to say that it’s set during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and that it has a more traditional horror plot, involving one agoraphobic, paranoid young woman’s growing distrust of her father (played by Dermot Mulroney).
Based on these opening installments, Into the Dark could ultimately suffer from the downside to Blumhouse’s success: excessive respectability. The company’s movies are sometimes described (even in Blumhouse’s own marketing materials) as “micro-budgeted,” but over the past few years, its theatrical releases have tended to cost between $5 and $10 million, which isn’t exactly spare change. That kind of money buys production value, in the form of well-dressed sets, gifted actors, and impressive special effects.
It also gives Blumhouse’s output a sheen that’s sometimes detrimental to the horror genre, where at least some grubbiness and disreputability is necessary, to make viewers uncomfortable. Blumhouse’s films are eclectic in terms of subject matter and often thoughtful both in how they engage with what’s going on in the world today and how they reckon with the history of horror. (Many of the company’s franchises feature prequels that allow the filmmakers to pay homage to the thrillers of decades past.) But there’s a level of implied safety to these pictures: they’re not nightmares; they’re amusement-park rides.
That said, it would’ve been easy for Into the Dark to kick off with some generic slasher film, loaded up with Halloween-friendly jump-scares and good-looking young murder victims. The Body tries something different. It fails, sure, but there are 11 more films to go. And recent history suggests that one of these months, this particular low-stakes Blumhouse gamble will pay off.