This October, Hulu debuted a new project in concert with Blumhouse Productions called INTO THE DARK. An anthology film series, DARK will offer a new film on the first Thursday of the month cued to that month’s major holiday. Theoretically, this project presents a wealth of opportunities. The teams behind the films have a nearly infinite combination of horror subgenres, tone, and themes to combine to deliver their story.

With all that in mind, how do the films utilize infinite possibilities? Are they using the months and holidays as good springboards for storytelling? Will the stories they present prove unique and engaging? By watching and considering the first three INTO THE DARK offerings — THE BODY, FLESH & BLOOD, and POOKA! — I am attempting to deliver a verdict on these questions and one big overarching one. Does INTO THE DARK fulfill its potential?

The Months

Every month boasts its own unique feel, its own kind of energy. Whether it be the summer dog days of August or the unpredictable grind of March, we can all conjure an image, an association in our mind of what that month means to us. Given that each film takes place in the month it is released, investing in that tone should be task one. Utilize the month to give your film depth and texture and you are already well on your war.

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Nyasha Hatendi strikes a hero’s pose in a moment from INTO THE DARK: POOKA! This will not last (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: POOKA!

POOKA! does the best job of tapping into the vibe of its month. Unfolding over the course of a Christmas shopping season, this INTO THE DARK installment nicely conjures the severely contrasting tones that December batters us with each season. On the one hand, we have a sense of hope. It can be both uplifting or crushing depending on how that hope translates into reality. On the other, we have the hustle and bustle.

It may exhilarate us and power us forward to buy every item, wrap every present, and attend every party. On the other, it may overwhelm and push us farther and farther out of our comfort zone. POOKA! gives us heaping helpings of all sensations to give us the film’s distinct sense of unreality.

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The titular body of INTO THE DARK: THE BODY has a moment. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: THE BODY

In a different approach, THE BODY keeps its focus on the holiday instead. October itself gets short shrift. The movie fails to capture the snap of cold in the air, the mix of days that darken too early and weather that continues to dance between summer and fall often in the same week. THE BODY has little interest in interrogating October beyond its final day.

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Diana Silvers, left, and Dermot Mulroney, right, break bread at last year’s Thanksgiving in a flashback from INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD

Last, and least, is FLESH & BLOOD and its use of November. To be fair, the bulk of FLESH & BLOOD unfolds inside the home meaning that 90-some percent of the movie could happen in November, April or February and it would look equally the same. The setting may also contribute as signs point to this being a rather temperate environment for November. Nonetheless, the film lacks the classic markers of November.

Whether it be the leaves on the ground or the increasing chill, the lead character Kimberly (Diana Silvers) — and thus us as viewers — are largely insulated from the month.

The Holidays

Within the month, INTO THE DARK drills down further, connecting each installment to a specific holiday of that month. Therefore, the themes of the film can undergo a further sharpening. The vague “snap in the wind” I mentioned above takes on a creepy layer on Halloween, for instance, while the promise of hope in December has an ever-ticking clock counting down to the 25th punctuating it.

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The improbably Tom Bateman and Rebecca Rittenhouse on are the hunt in a scene from INTO THE DARK: THE BODY. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: THE BODY

As noted above, THE BODY has little interest in October as a month but is all about Halloween. It is the catalyst that kickstarts the night. The titular body is being dragged by hitman Wilkes (Tom Bateman) on the 31st because he has counted on Halloween to provide him cover. After all, what other days of the year can one drag a corpse and look like they are just out having fun?

It also provides the first big set piece of the film, a Halloween party thrown by entrepreneur/trust fund kid/“artist” Jack (Ray Santiago). That is the venue that facilitates the meeting between Wilkes and, possibly, the only woman who could love him and vice versa, Maggie (Rebecca Rittenhouse). INTO THE BODY ends up degenerating into a relatively generic slasher film from its promising beginnings, but even that fits the motif. Why? The quintessential slasher film? You guessed it, Halloween.

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Diana Silvers tries to reach the outside world in a scene from INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD

FLESH & BLOOD digs deeper into Thanksgiving to unearth some darker themes over the mere set dressing BODY settles for. This INTO THE DARK offering uses Kimberly’s agoraphobia and then, literally trapped nature, for the feeling many of us experience returning home for the holidays.

That mix of comfort and stultification is given life in her ever-escalating attempts to leave her home. Her father Henry (Dermot Mulroney) provides another part of the Thanksgiving stew embodying that one relative who you love who has terrible political positions — toxic masculinity here — that challenge you to reevaluate your love.

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Pooka is having a rough time of it in a scene from INTO THE DARK: POOKA! (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: POOKA!

POOKA! presents as kind of a mirror image of THE BODY. It gets so much right about the month of December, while not giving us Christmas. In fact, near as I can tell, the story never actually reaches Christmas Day. If it does, it is only in the film’s final moments when, perhaps, December 24th turns to the 25th at the stroke of midnight.

However, with so much of the month of December caught by with and driven by the cultural signifiers — holy and secular — of the holiday, I did not find myself much bothered by it.

The Style

As Duke Ellington taught us, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Put it another way, if your film does not look good, people will notice. And a lack of style is definitely not what you want to have people noticing about a movie.

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Dermot Mulroney and Diana Silvers have one of those important father-daughter chats while under their home. Like one does. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD

Patrick Lussier directing from Louis Ackerman’s first feature-length script rightly concludes that the house is a big opportunity. As relations between Henry and Kimberly continue to degenerate, the house reflects the push and pull between father and daughter. Dad increases restrictions on her and she dives deeper into his secret life. Dad responds by shrinking the home’s boundaries through plastic sheeting, locked doors, and boarded windows.

She, in turn, works harder to connect to the outside world. Then he ups the ante again and so the cycle continues, growing ever more excessive. Unfortunately, Lussier stumbles in trying to portray Kimberly’s disorder. Using handheld shots that bounce and twist, oscillating between in and out of focus, he tries to place us not only in Kimberly’s mindset but her literal perspective.

Alas, we might be able to see what she sees, but the movie fails to capture the feelings behind it. As a result, we struggle to appreciate both what she has lost and why she might dwell in a rapidly more dangerous situation.

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Jon Daly acts the hype man for Pooka in a scene from INTO THE DARK: POOKA! (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: POOKA!

Nacho Vigalondo — most recently of COLOSSAL — comes to INTO THE DARK as arguably the most well-known and regarded of the directors of this quarter. No surprise that POOKA! feels the strongest stylistically.

Through the use of quick cuts, gels, juxtaposition, and ever-shifting locations, Vigalondo creates a sense of unease in the film from the first frame. It subtly undermines reality from the start. Thus, when the dissolution of certainty ramps up hard, the viewer has no proverbial safe place to escape to. For both the viewer and Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi), the protagonist, there exists no past to flee back to, no event to cling onto to keep oneself upright. POOKA! has only ever offered the viewer unreality.

From a design standpoint, Pooka is a thing of wonder. Close enough to not seem beyond the pale as a children’s toy, but still monstrous at man size, the “unpredictable” talking teddy bear feels nightmarish even before we meet its flame-eyed doppelganger. When Vigalondo finally reveals the definitive reality, its commonness plays stark in comparison to the phantasmagory viewers just survived. Somehow, the benignity of reality makes it the hardest part of the film to watch and the scariest.

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Rebecca Rittenhouse goes positively Victorian for Halloween in INTO THE DARK: THE BODY. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: THE BODY

This INTO THE DARK installment starts out strong. The impeccably decorated apartment of Wilkes’ victim and Wilkes’ classic black tailored suit juxtapose nicely with the barbaric crime just committed and the hitman’s blasé attitude. That control of style continues through the chaotic Halloween party with its whirling colors, random cameos, and packed too tightly interiors. We are part of the festivities and feel equal parts drawn in and repulsed.

The strength of setting and atmosphere then goes flat. The city street, where the trio of Jack, Alan (David Hull), and Dorothy (Aurora Perrineau) squabble and plan their next move, for instance? It remains empty for the length of their fight. Anyone who has lived in a city and had the good (?) fortune to wander the streets on Halloween night can tell that this is not a thing that happens. The sudden sparseness deadens the tension immediately.

The Quality

No matter how much the films nail the themes of a month or a holiday, however, it does not amount to much if what unfolds on the screen is not worth watching. There exists a no better way to derail a project than to invest all your time in motifs and tones and forget entirely in the old-fashioned business of delivering a picture that is strong enough to make a viewer sit through it. No one will care about what you have to say about the nuclear family unit in the 21st Century if they are already bored out of their skull 10 minutes in. We have talked months, holidays, and style. Now is the time for the most important element.

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Tom Bateman looks a bit worse for wear in a scene from INTO THE DARK: THE BODY. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: THE BODY

THE BODY has a great premise for a dark comedy. Self-involved rich types encounter a nihilistic sociopath but figure he is just too serious about his Halloween to break character. It is the kind of setup that is rich with potential. Unfortunately, the script from Paul Davis — also the director — and Paul Fischer quickly ditches that framework for a good ol’ chase and stab. I cannot fault them for not making the movie I wanted to see, the dark comedy. I can, however, fault them for failing to make a good version of the movie they want.

The further they seem to commit to the premise, the more the film breaks down. The trio suffers not only from the rapidly decreasing number of characters to play off but from having to play off each other as well. Fine at realizing the characters on their own, they lack chemistry as a unit. Their escalating panic, as a result, feels empty and performative more than gripping. The half of the plot involving Wilkes and Maggie has more juice.

I actually have a lot of affection for how Rittenhouse authors Maggie’s slowly unfolding bloodlust. Sadly, Bateman’s Wilkes lacks a glimmer of fun wickedness. It is difficult to figure out what Maggie finds so seductive about him. In the end, promise gives way to a bland shrug. Not even the film’s final silly gag can redeem it.

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Dermot Mulroney really misreads a moment, thinks it is hug time, in INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD. (Courtesy of Hulu)

INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD

Silvers does a good job finding the right balance between an average teenager and unprocessed trauma survivor. We can feel the conflict of terror and the typical frustration of a teenager unable to have freedom. Even before she realizes how her illness has trapped her, she is already chafing at the restraints. For an actor in only her first recorded work, navigating a third of the film as a one-woman show is no easy move but she invites us in with her naturalistic performance. Mulroney, on the other hand, gets the flashier role and struggles with it a bit more.

What he gets right — Henry’s twisted sense of family and what it means to protect one’s daughter — he does very well with. Even as he grows increasingly unhinged, his monologues feel like his true point of view. However, the role also calls for a certain amount of bombastic scenery chewing. The film suggests that perhaps he just does not have that gear. The biggest strike against the picture, however, is the somewhat repetitive nature of the action. The incidents prove too similar. They’re going for escalation, but it just feels like redundancy.

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Pooka, in happier times, in INTO THE DARK: POOKA! (Courtesy of Hulu)

Assessing INTO THE DARK: POOKA!

If Wilson does not feel like someone we can root for, the rest of the movie would fall apart. Fortunately, Hatendi always finds Wilson’s baseline humanity, even as he grows increasingly erratic and ill-tempered.

Jon Daly, best known for his comedic work, finds a too slick queasy charisma for Finn. As KOOPA! spins further and further out of control, he begins to feel strangely solid despite his purposely opaque speech patterns. Moreover, his persona makes his final appearance in the film feel like a quick kick to the ribs. Suddenly it becomes clear why he has grown more anchoring even as the world’s grown wilder.

Dale Dickey scores her second strong dramatic performance this year — after her work in LEAVE NO TRACE. Her work as the neighbor has this oddly ethereal quality that makes her both comforting and disconcerting.

To put it succinctly, it’s the best of the three by a country mile.

That’s a Wrap!

A slow start made me concerned that this Hulu/Blumhouse effort would end up a mediocre quickly forgotten curio. However, if INTO THE DARK can build on the momentum and attitude of POOKA!, I think they can create some fascinating efforts. They may not all work as well as POOKA! but at least with that mindset, viewers can be treated to some incredible imagery and some ambitious attempts by filmmakers to maximize their 90 minutes.

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