Marisol (Martha Higareda) is pregnant, desperate to leave Mexico for America. This is her second try, after having been left behind on her last attempt. Marisol’s harrowing journey, accompanied by a gang of ghoulish coyotes, a young Guatemalan child named Ricky, and a man named Santo with a dark past, comprises the first half of Gigi Saul Guerrero’s feature debut, Culture Shock. Fittingly, or perhaps ironically, this feature will form the July 4th entry in Hulu’s Blumhouse-backed Into The Dark anthology series.
What begins with a seemingly-hopeless process to escape her old life, rife with a number of physical and emotional abuses, ends with Marisol giving birth and becoming the newest citizen of an impossibly-saccharine nightmare town. This community exists in what appears to be an idealized Technicolor version of the 1950s, placing Marisol under the care of homemaker Betty (Barbara Crampton) and the town’s charming young mayor, Thomas (Shawn Ashmore). Think pastel-coloured sweater-vests, manicured lawns, and lots and lots of American flags.
The townspeople, including those who crossed the border with Marisol, have creepy, permanent smiles, and are happy to the point of delirium about being in the town. And why wouldn’t they be? They’ve made it to America! The food is indescribably delicious, the weather is perfect, and the residents are uniformly warm and welcoming. But even Santo and Ricky don’t remember anything from before arriving in town. That is until Marisol wakes them up by speaking (or singing) in Spanish to them.
Marisol begins to notice other things, too. Her vision, and the very fabric of the town, starts to ‘glitch’. The polite-to-a-fault townspeople start to malfunction when things stop going according to their set plan, like when Marisol refuses dessert one night at dinner and her server goes completely bugnuts. As the veneer of the idyllic community starts to slip, what’s underneath is nothing short of a living nightmare. Presiding over all this, in a role that seems crafted just for him, is The Office’s Creed Bratton in a genuinely terrifying turn.
There’s more than a little Black Mirror-esque technophobia at play in Culture Shock as well, and it serves the story well instead of feeling tacked-on. There’s a real concern that tech-focused “solutions” to a crisis like this ignore the human element, turning those that are affected by the turmoil into high-tech lab rats. This is taken to extremes in Culture Shock, but as in the best of Black Mirror, there are filaments of believability spread throughout the episode.
Let’s be honest: we already knew that, after years of solid short-film work, Gigi Saul Guerrero was bound to end up making something special for her feature-length debut, and Culture Shock is proof of Guerrero’s potential. I haven’t seen every entry in the Into The Dark series, but I can say that this is the strongest of the ones I have been able to catch.
In many ways, Culture Shock feels like a companion piece to fellow Cinepocalypse entry, Izzy Bell’s Re-Home, in which Guerrero trades her director’s chair for an onscreen role. Both pieces are unsubtle indictments of the real border crisis facing America and Mexico – the one faced by the desperate migrants yearning to breathe free. At a time when fictional horror barely does justice to the very real atrocities at the southern border of the United States, it’s remarkable that both Culture Shock and Re-Home manage to express even a small part of the terror and uncertainty that afflicts these migrant families and individuals on their quest for a better life.