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Season 1 of Into the Dark blurred the line between TV and film, but rarely in a good way

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The Blumhouse / Hulu horror anthology needs to take more risks

Photo: Richard Foreman / Hulu

Blumhouse Productions was in the news quite a bit in August 2019 due to the uproar over the movie The Hunt. Co-produced by Blumhouse founder Jason Blum, the satirical thriller was pulled from release by distributor Universal Pictures after right-wing pundits slammed the film’s trailer, saying it appeared to endorse the idea of wealthy liberal elites stalking and killing salt-of-the-earth middle-American conservatives.

Amid the furor, Blumhouse quietly announced that its Hulu series Into the Dark had been renewed for another season. These two bits of cultural news aren’t entirely unrelated: they both indicate the possible future for gritty genre movies and Blumhouse’s place as their champion.

Into the Dark hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention, but it’s been a sporadically worthwhile project. It’s mostly lacking must-see highs, but also only occasionally a waste of time. Ostensibly a horror anthology, Into the Dark has been distinguished from its competition by three twists: the episodes have been released monthly instead of weekly, each episode is a feature film, and each is loosely inspired by something seasonal. The January episode takes place at a New Year’s party, the April episode is about April Fools’ Day, and so on.

The show’s first season is ending with Pure, which is set on Daughter’s Day (September 22nd, for those who haven’t already marked their calendars). The episode offers a pretty typical Into the Dark mix of well-worn horror concepts and fresh social commentary. The story follows a group of teenage girls who join their fathers at a weekend religious retreat where they’re expected to reaffirm their vows of chastity. But then a rebellious camper pulls her cabinmates into a ritual to conjure up Adam’s first wife, Lilith, a mischievous spirit in the vein of Candyman or Beetlejuice. The spirit they draw wreaks havoc among the pious chauvinists who run the program. Pure is well-acted, with some moments of mordant wit. But it proceeds almost exactly as expected, which has been a recurring stumbling block for this series.

The best Into the Dark episodes aren’t beholden to any particular house style, nor have they followed any predictable pattern. They’ve been more like smart, quirky, low-budget indie films, the kinds that would pop up in a Midnight Madness program at a high-profile film festival.

For example, that January episode, New Year, New You, was directed and co-written by Sophia Takal, a former mumblecore indie movie star who previously directed the edgy 2016 thriller Always Shine. New Year, New You is about a group of women, once childhood friends, who spend an evening trying (and mostly failing) to punish the group’s most successful member for the awful ways she behaved when they were kids. The episode has its violence, but it’s more of a psychodrama with a real edge and a personal touch.

Anyone who wants to sample the best of Into the Dark could start with that episode. Also very good: Pooka!, a quasi-comedy about a killer costumed character, directed by cult favorite Nacho Vigalondo. One of the few episodes to get some substantial press coverage was the Independence Day special Culture Shock, an unnerving Mexican border-crossing story about a pregnant immigrant stumbling into a surreal American suburbia where the smiling faces mask dark intentions.

As for the worst? Well, it’s hard to recommend The Body, which is about an assassin schlepping a corpse around a Halloween party. It has a clever premise, but it’s too talky and not as funny or as tense as it should be. Also misbegotten: All That We Destroy, which squanders a truly nifty premise about a geneticist who creates human clones for her sociopathic son to slaughter. School Spirit, a combination of The Breakfast Club and any generic slasher picture, has nothing notable to say about high school or masked murderers.

The least successful Into the Dark installments feel perfunctory, a compendium of horror clichés strung together to complete an assignment. That’s a problem because there’s no shortage of horror options these days: on television, in theaters, on streaming services, or (and this is key) on VOD. This may be why Into the Dark has had such a hard time generating buzz: the series is a little betwixt and between in terms of its format.

Even hardcore gorehounds have a hard time keeping up with all the micro-budgeted slice-’em-ups popping up on digital retailers every week. The ones connoisseurs tend to tout are often the ones made for pennies by filmmakers from the middle of nowhere. They may not be masterpieces, but they’re weird and sometimes off-putting. They’re memorable, in other words. Into the Dark, by contrast, has a polish that openly reveals it as a professionally produced horror anthology series, rather than trashy grindhouse fare. The subject matter is often hard-hitting. The approach rarely is.

So here are the questions: do the Into the Dark episodes even need to be movies? Is the length really a selling point? Or is it setting up expectations that are hard to meet by suggesting that these TV episodes are of theatrical quality?

It isn’t like television has been lacking ambitious, high-end horror anthologies in recent years. Some have gone the miniseries route, like American Horror Story or the recently canceled Channel Zero. Some have worked in a short-story format, like the rebooted Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, which has occasionally featured episodes as long as an Into the Dark.

Nearly all of these series have trafficked in undisguised social commentary, too. Cultural relevance has been a hallmark of Blumhouse. Though founder Jason Blum has made a lot of money with simple, crowd-pleasing franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Happy Death Day, the company is also responsible for The Purge and Get Out... as well as The Hunt.

With 12 more episodes coming, the future of Into the Dark raises another question (so does the future of The Hunt, which remains undetermined). Is there any reason why The Hunt couldn’t have been an episode of Into the Dark? Based on the trailer, which is all that protestors have seen, there’s nothing in The Hunt more controversial than much of American Horror Story, some episodes of the new Twilight Zone, or even Into the Dark. What if the Into the Dark episode Culture Shock had released as a theatrical feature? Would there have been an outcry over that trailer and its thoughts on immigration?

What’s so fascinating about the Into the Dark experiment, for better or worse, is that it blurs the lines between movies and TV in ways that are oddly clarifying. Television episodes look more and more “cinematic” these days, such that telling stories in a visually stylish way isn’t enough to make even an actual movie (like the Into the Dark episodes) feel like a movie. Also, because there are so many movies available to watch these days across many different platforms, a TV franchise pumping out what amounts to a feature film a month isn’t as enticing as it might’ve once been. If anything, the Into the Dark episodes sometimes feel bloated, like any other overlong episode of prestige cable dramas.

And yet it seems increasingly like TV (or streaming services delivered via televisions, like Netflix and Hulu) is the medium where more disturbing material can find backers and, eventually, viewers as well. It’s just necessary for that material to stand out. Series like Into the Dark have a platform, a dedicated horror audience looking for something unfamiliar and new, and an opportunity to take big chances. These series have the opportunity to tell subversive, gripping stories that wouldn’t necessarily find funding or promotional support in theaters. And Into the Dark isn’t taking enough advantage of its freedom. Even the best installments of the show’s first season often came across like still more modestly budgeted VOD movies, made to be forgotten. It remains to be seen whether season 2 can be more confident, more challenging, and more memorable.