“Into the Dark’s” Thanksgiving installment stuffs its turkey with a lot of tasty ingredients but comes out of the oven a little dry and overdone.
“This whole thing is about trust, Kimberly…”
Thanksgiving may seem like an “easy” holiday to make compatible with horror. There’s plenty of iconic imagery associated with the holiday and it even has a history that has a massacre baked right into it. However, in spite of this, Thanksgiving hasn’t been the centerpiece for horror that often. There’s Eli Roth’s faux grindhouse trailer for Thanksgiving and the infamous Thanksgiving dinner scene from House 3, but those are hardly staples of the genre. Curiously, the anthology horror film, Holidays, gruesomely tackles everything from New Year’s Eve to Father’s Day, yet it doesn’t indulge in Thanksgiving or have a full enough story to highlight the holiday.
These examples all have a tendency to fixate on the Thanksgiving dinner ritual, and more specifically, the dinner’s centerpiece of the turkey. ”Flesh & Blood” chooses to play against that stereotype and find all sorts of new avenues of horror from the confines of this holiday. “Flesh & Blood” instead focuses on how Thanksgiving is so often about the reunion of family. It finds a way to pervert and warp the closeness of this holiday, rather than focus on something as superficial and limited as food. This is a much more compelling story than say if some giant killer turkey that looks like a Pumpkinhead reject were chasing Kimberly and the cause of her fear. If Into the Dark’s first installment felt reminiscent of a mediocre Tales From the Crypt installment, then “Flesh & Blood” more closely resembles an adult version of Are You Afraid of the Dark? “Flesh & Blood” isn’t perfect, but there’s a strong idea at its core.
The episode look at Kimberly, a reclusive teenager who struggles with a crippling case of agoraphobia that developed after her mother was murdered by a serial killer, who just so happens to still be at large. Kimberly suddenly begins to freak out on Thanksgiving when she starts to suspect something from her father and fears that he might not be the ideal guardian that she thinks he is. In fact, he could actually be her worst enemy.
This is a solid starting point and the episode resists showing exactly how Kimberly’s mom died and doesn’t shove it in the audience’s face. It’s not quite subtle on the issue, but it could be a lot worse in terms of how Kimberly’s past is presented. A simpler story would show the murder from the start and then jump a year forward to when the film begins. Kimberly’s sordid lot has seen her seeking therapy, but her doctor seems curt and isn’t optimistic about Kimberly’s recovery. She basically attacks her and tells Henry, her father, that she might exhibit violent tendencies and that she’d be better off to be sent somewhere. This is all supposed to enforce the idea that Kimberly is going to snap in some way or that she might have even been responsible for her mother’s death. However, in actuality, there may be a more twisted story in play here where Kimberly is very much the victim.
“Flesh & Blood’s” introductory scene intentionally lingers on Kimberly’s happy family and her last pleasant memory back when everything was perfect before it all fell apart. This peace is juxtaposed against how lost Kimberly is in the present and the muted, medicated lifestyle that she leads. Her drowsy demeanor is played parallel to a hazy gaze through a clouded window and a warped sound design. All of this points to the idea that Kimberly is lost in her closed, tiny world.
For Kimberly, even a task as trivial as retrieving the mail from the mailbox becomes an insurmountable, dreadful ordeal. “Flesh & Blood” wisely seeds this trauma early on in the episode so when Kimberly really needs to go out of her comfort zone later on it’s especially powerful. The episode does a good enough job to depict the chaos that Kimberly feels when she’s outside and tempting her phobia. The world explodes and her faculties go all out of whack. That being said, something like the depiction of Chuck’s electromagnetic sensitivity on Better Call Saul has pretty much set the standard for this kind of internal fear of the outside.
“Flesh & Blood” builds as much sympathy for Kimberly as possible right from the jump. Even though she’s essentially by herself, there’s a surprising amount of humanity in Kimberly’s agoraphobia support group chats. It’s a smart way to show how she interacts with others while she’s still isolated. That being said, it’s still a problem that someone as young as Kimberly is trapped in this phobia as developmentally she doesn’t experience the stimulation that she needs. She basically depends on her father for every kind of outside support, which she seems fine with, but this obviously turns into a twisted problem.
Kimberly’s picture-perfect image of her father first starts to falter when a girl goes missing close to Thanksgiving and it triggers the idea in Kimberly’s head that the attacks that got her mother could be happening again. She gets especially suspicious when she sees that the victim has the exact same necklace as she does. Not only that, a slew of girls have gone missing in the area that all bear striking resemblances to Kimberly’s mom. Kimberly’s pent-up, paranoid mind runs wild with all of this. Whether Kimberly’s actually onto something here or not, her unpredictable actions in the past cause everyone to assume that she’s in a state. The idea of an unstable person who actually stumbles onto a murder or a crime isn’t exactly original, but “Flesh & Blood” handles the area reasonably well.
“Flesh & Blood’s” second act gains momentum due to how it basically plays out much like the first act, but now Kimberly’s suspicions are amplified so everything plays with a darker context to it. It’s an effective way to energize the episode and if the beginning has a bit of a Repulsion vibe, then the middle section resembles Rear Window or Misery as Kimberly goes into trapped detective mode. Finally, the episode doubles down on a Stepfather energy as it barrels to its conclusion.
Surprisingly, it feels like the story almost wraps up when it hits the halfway mark. Everything’s been revealed and the conclusion fast approaches, but the rest of the episode digs into this mental tug of war between Kimberly and Henry. It’s these moments that hit the hardest in “Flesh & Blood.” That being said, this comes across as a way to stretch out the story and take an hour’s worth of content and turn it into a feature-length endeavor. The story could be over much earlier, but it draws out the reveals. There’s still some satisfying stuff that follows, but it doesn’t quite necessitate this length.
Both performances in “Flesh & Blood” are great, but Dermot Mulroney really brings it as Henry, especially with how he slowly lets darkness creep into his performance. It’s subtle work at first where you can just sense uneasiness under his surface, but by the end of the entry he both chews and demolishes the scenery. Dana Silver also does good work as the consistently frail, unsure Kimberly, but it’s great to watch this fragile person grow stronger as she’s forced to overcome her fears. She gets a little too broad in her reactions sometimes, but for the most part she handles this well.
Furthermore, the story benefits by how this is so much of a two-hander and doesn’t overcrowd its plot with unnecessary characters. It’s basically just Kimberly and her father and it helps add to the restrained, isolated feeling that Kimberly experiences, too. Her world is cut off, so the audience’s is as well. Additionally, if these performances didn’t ring true the whole thing would pretty much fall apart. These aren’t groundbreaking roles here, but they still bring a lot to the table as these characters. While the performances are enjoyable and plenty of “Flesh & Blood” is thoughtfully handled, some of its plotting feels rather convenient and hackneyed. There are ample opportunities where the story could deepen, but it instead spins its wheels on the same ideas.
“Flesh & Blood” also does a reasonably good job towing the line between whether Henry’s guilty or not, but it could still work harder in this regard. If this were more ambiguous then the final act would hit with much more impact. The audience should feel as confused as Kimberly, but instead, it feels a lot more obvious. And hey, at least it fits in one extremely gory, bloody murder before all is said and done. This is much more a psychological outing, but in the end, it finally shows it’s more physical side and embraces its horror tendencies.
There’s plenty of potential in “Flesh & Blood,” especially since the installment references a bunch of classic horror, but it still feels like a pulpy pale comparison of those films rather than something that evolves the form. This is a little disheartening as the director, Patrick Lussier, isn’t new to the game. He’s responsible for schlocky but fun films like Drive Angry or My Bloody Valentine 3D and worked as an editor on many of Wes Craven’s pictures. This is still an engaging story that feels slightly more polished and effective than “The Body,” but Hulu’s Into the Dark is still just popcorn horror at this point. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this could be so much more. Obviously there’s a lot of stakes riding on Christmas, so hopefully, the next episode will really go for broke with what this show can do. One especially moving set piece in “Flesh & Blood” sees Henry maddeningly talk to Kimberly about finally finding the courage to come out of her cocoon. Sure, it’s satisfying if Kimberly can make this transition, but what we really need is for Into the Dark to follow suit and break free of its cage.
“Into the Dark’s” Flesh & Blood premieres on Hulu on November 2nd.