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Hulu’s latest Into the Dark episode feels like an answer to Escape Room

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Kick off 2019 by streaming a different kind of revenge thriller: ‘New Year, New You’

Photo: Richard Foreman / Hulu

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

“New Year, New You,” the latest episode of the Hulu / Blumhouse horror-movie anthology Into the Dark. Each monthly entry in the series has a holiday theme: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so forth. “New Year, New You” — directed by Sophia Takal, and co-written by Takal and Adam Gaines — is set on New Year’s Eve, and stars Suki Waterhouse, Carly Chaikin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Melissa Bergland as childhood friends who get together for one last shindig at the house where they all used to hang out. Before the night is over, the ladies reckon with a dark, shared secret, and deal with the ramifications and reversals of fortune that follow a sloppily planned act of revenge.

Why watch now?

Because Escape Room opened in theaters this week.

Directed by Adam Robitel — who helmed 2018’s horror hit Insidious: The Last Key — the new thriller follows six disparate characters who get invited to win big money by solving fiendishly tricky escape room puzzles. Before long, the players realize the game is deadly, and that they’ve been lured into a trap by someone who knows a lot about their pasts. Like the Saw series and its imitators, Escape Room invites viewers to step into a succession of clever torture chambers. It toys with the audience’s sympathies, too, suggesting that the people trying to survive are in this predicament because of something they did.

Righteous revenge and ironic justice are common drivers of horror movie plots, from slashers to home-invasion thrillers to torture-porn. Want to tell a story about a group of attractive young people getting gruesomely murdered? Give the victims some negative traits, and the killer some decent motivation, so the experience of watching all these gory deaths can feel righteous — and like justifiable fun. The problem with this approach, as seen in many of the later Saw films, is that it tends to dehumanize the victims, turning them into indistinct fodder for whatever clever slaughter the villain has planned.

“New Year, New You” overcomes this trap by emphasizing characters over gimmicks. Takal and Gaines have a few big twists to spring throughout the episode, but they don’t get to any of them until they’ve spent almost a third of their running time fully introducing their four friends: Kayla (Howell-Baptiste), a sweet-natured do-gooder in a committed lesbian relationship; Chloe (Bergland), a foul-mouthed libertine who cracks jokes to downplay her self-consciousness about her weight; Danielle (Chaikin), an appallingly successful lifestyle guru; and Alexis (Waterhouse), an underachiever whose long-simmering grudge against Danielle boils over at the house party. Eventually, Alexis attempts to force her old bestie to pay for her past sins, but because she’s an actual flesh-and-blood person and not a superhuman force like Saw’s Jigsaw, her scheme goes awry, with messy consequences.

Who it’s for

Fans of cult TV and sophisticated American indie films.

Chaikin and Howell-Baptiste aren’t household names, but they’re well-known to television connoisseurs. Chaikin played a hilariously deadpan popular kid in the sitcom Suburgatory, and the hero’s anarchist coder sister in Mr. Robot. Howell-Baptiste is Chidi’s brainy, cheery girlfriend in the most recent season of The Good Place. As for Takal, she got her start as an actress in mumblecore movies like Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky and 24 Exposures. She made her feature directing debut in 2016 with Always Shine (written by her husband and fellow mumblecore stalwart Lawrence Michael Levine), a psychological thriller about two actress friends who air their grievances against each other during a tense weekend at Big Sur.

“New Year, New You” has more in common with Always Shine’s arty spin on suspense than it does with Swanberg’s rambling relationship dramas. With its dreamy Michael Montes score, moody Lyn Moncrief cinematography, and frequent use of split-screens and mirrors to evoke the characters’ fractured sense of self, this Into the Dark episode nods at times to the New Hollywood era of Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and Brian De Palma, who all treated classic B-movie genres with maturity and ambition. In Takal and Gaines’ case, they’re using the “young women in fear for their lives in a big, remote house” plot as a way to comment on the kind of YouTube and Instagram celebrities who get rich by telling other women how to live.

Photo: Richard Foreman / Hulu

The satirical elements are strong. (An opening sequence of Danielle hawking her natural juice cocktails on YouTube is especially astute, with its appropriately choppy editing and hashtags like “#manifestation.”) But “New Year, New You” mainly works well when it isn’t too broad. The many scenes of these women just sitting around talking — sharing pertinent and sometimes damaging details about their lives since high school — make it all the more meaningful when a mud-masked, lipstick-smeared, wild-eyed Danielle starts plotting her own violent revenge against the gal-pal who tried to best her.

Where to see it

Hulu. Into the Dark got off to a rough start, but “New Year, New You” and the imaginative third episode, “Pooka!” (a black comedy about a killer costumed character, directed by indie genre film favorite Nacho Vigalondo) suggest this series could even out into a must-see going forward.