Into the Dark finds moderate success when it plays cupid and pairs up horror and rom-coms in this claustrophobic Valentine’s Day tale.
“Wait! Can you hold that please?”
I am a huge, unabashed fan of when television shows resort to “bottle episodes.” This structural device sees a series contain its story to a sole location, often as a means to spend less money and help alleviate a bloated budget. These solitary installments can sometimes be a bore or an exercise in overindulgence, but they’re often great ways to do deep character studies and push relationships to their limit. This month Hulu’s Into the Dark decides to go the bottle episode route and even embraces a particularly well-worn topic for these kinds of installments: people get stuck in an elevator. Fortunately, Into the Dark uses this broken elevator concept to complement its respective holiday, but it doesn’t exactly offer up anything that new or revelatory to the genre. Nevertheless, it’s certainly still entertaining.
If a suspicious elevator thriller sounds vaguely familiar, there was, of course, the controversial Shyamalan-produced Devil that fell under his new “Night Chronicles” banner from nearly a decade ago. Reception was lukewarm on that film and “Down” manages to draw a little more blood from this stone (it’s also a few minutes longer than Devil), but still faces its own roadblocks, like a less compelling—although still commendable—cast and an even simpler narrative. For what it’s worth, while Daniel Stamm was not connected to Devil, there is still a curious coincidence here as Stamm was set to be Shyamalan’s director for the second installment of his “Night Chronicles” before the series fell apart.
Daniel Stamm of The Last Exorcism fame (as well as directing installments of Fear the Walking Dead and Scream), sets his sights on Valentine’s Day. The episode’s script from newcomer screenwriter, Kent Kubena, does an adequate job with the project’s constraints and only occasionally struggles to fill “Down’s” boiled down 82-minute runtime.
“Down” begins with a super ominous, foreboding introduction, which certainly tips off the viewer that this will be a horror film. Even though the audience inherently knows this, I’d argue that the film would still be fundamentally stronger if it just acted like a rom-com from the start and didn’t immediately show its hand. To that end, Stamm’s “Down” adopts an inspired approach for this sort of vehicle. It starts and behaves like a rom-com, only to slowly reveal its true colors and that it’s actually a horror film. This is even more effective because the exact same feeling happens to the characters within “Down” as they learn the truth about each other and what they’ve really gotten themselves into. All of the cute quirks of a romantic comedy are fully on display before Jennifer and Guy’s night takes an unexpected turn for the worse. It’s a beautiful moment when the tipping point occurs and the fear and uneasiness starts to outweigh the cute, romantic vibes.
“Down’s” premise is very simple. Guy and Jennifer both have very different plans for their Valentine’s Days before matters get derailed and they’re stuck together in the elevator, for what they fear might be the entire long weekend. They both have their own personal problems to overcome and at first, it looks like Jennifer and Guy can not only help each other out, but also may even be the solution to each other’s woes. Stories like this can sometimes take time to get started, but kudos to “Down” for having Jennifer and Guy get stuck in the elevator incredibly quickly into the installment. Within the first ten minutes, they’re not only already deep in their situation, but there are also hints that something more sinister is afoot.
Matt Lauria and Natalie Martinez headline the cast and the installment is basically just the two of them bouncing off of each other without much of a supporting crew. Lauria and Martinez are both good, relatable choices for the hapless leads in a romantic comedy vehicle. There’s a real chemistry between the two of them and it’s really sweet to watch them slowly let down their guards to each other. The moments where they get to bond are the perfect contrast to the more suspenseful and tense extremes that “Down” turns to in time. It allows the episode a very natural quality that helps pass the time and not make it feel like you’re trapped and bored in an elevator with these characters. It’s very theatrical in nature and Lauria really gets to show off his range here.
“Down” explores the typical problems that result with being stuck in an elevator, like boredom, urgent bodily functions, and paranoia, but then it turns up the heat when there appears to be an unnerving connection between these two apparent strangers. The film’s turning point towards the middle is presented in an extremely Lynchian manner, right down to the score, which feels like the right approach for such a strangely intimate and manipulative story. After the cards are revealed, the frightening tone for the film’s second half doesn’t disappoint and is genuinely creepy. “Down” very naturally warps a story about vulnerability and acceptance to one about loneliness and obsession. The episode continually finds interesting ways to explore the trust dynamic between these two.
“Down” focuses more on its twists and direction than any fancy camerawork, but the frequent use of surveillance footage helps create tension early on and gives the impression that perhaps Jennifer and Guy are being watched. The claustrophobic nature of the story doesn’t allow the cinematography to get that inventive, but it still finds ways to get creative and make the most out of the cramped environment. This is definitely an episode of Into the Dark that is more about its story than its aesthetics.
In spite of the installment’s natural vibe, “Down” may not get moving fast enough for some viewers (there’s a reason that intimidating cold open tips you off early on), but the slow burn and how this is able to move at its own pace works more in “Down’s” favor than it does to work against it. The entry does lose some steam and turns into a bit of a broken record in its second act, but it typically mixes up its routine before anything becomes too stale. “Down’s” angry final act also increases its scope in an unexpected fashion and finds a smart way to reasonably complicate the situation and defy audience’s expectations. There’s also one particularly gruesome set piece that’s well handled and just over the top enough.
“Down” is ultimately predictable fun, but also works as a reminder of the dark, insane things that “love” can make people do. The episode also creates just enough sympathy for its reprehensible characters and tries its best to make sure that nobody is black or white, even if it’s not a complete success. It would have been nice to see the episode indulge in its Agatha Christie tendencies a little more, but the humble mystery that it weaves still works. “Down” may not turn into an all-time horror classic for Valentine’s Day, but there are also many holiday-themed horror films that are a whole lot worse.
Oh, and “Down” technically also qualifies as a President’s Day-themed piece of horror. It gives you options in terms of which holiday you want to lump it into.
‘Into the Dark’s’ “Down” premieres on Hulu on February 1st