Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the second episode of Into the Dark, “Flesh & Blood.”
“Flesh & Blood” is the second entry in Into the Dark, and already it moves away from the genre promises of the series’ premise into standard thriller territory. And the weird thing is, it’s much better that its dispiriting Halloween-themed premiere. The Thanksgiving-themed episode of Hulu’s holiday anthology sees director Patrick Lussier and writer Louis Ackerman achieve the opposite of their lead-in: above-average execution of a tired idea.
Kimberly (Dana Silvers) suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t left the house since her mother’s still-unsolved murder. She lives with her dad (Dermot Mulroney) and likes to wear headphones around inside, generating aesthetic similarities to the mostly-wordless home invader film Hush and the trapped-by-circumstance Housebound. When a birthday gift looks suspiciously similar to the necklace worn by a missing girl, Kimberly starts thinking maybe things are a little weird around the house.
This devolves into a bit of a silly thriller-y plot—y’know, the one you’ve seen over and over where you’re supposed to wonder who’s the crazy one in the situation—that lightly brushes over the horror trend of familial trauma, particularly the relationship between family and the sanctity of the home. Kimberly’s therapist (Tembi Locke) has the unenviable job of spelling that out for us, before leaving the episode to marinate in its Big Themes.
Mulroney manages to morph his fatherly features (denim shirts, bumbling attempts at connection, crunchy baritone, weathered handsomeness) into sinister Mel Gibson mode without compromising his warmth. Simple production design elements, like Dad’s really ugly birthday cake and his propensity to somehow always be holding something sharp, along with the setting’s emphasis on construction—of identity, of the home itself—amplify his ominous efforts. “Flesh & Blood” basically asks, “What are those dads really up to at Home Depot?” The visual tension of the episode far outweighs the weirdly handled and heavy-handed plot about a potentially gaslit girl whose father may or may not be a murderer.
The way Lussier manifests Kimberly’s phobia—with whirling and blurry shots stacked on top of each other like fun house mirrors, distorting the same view over and over until you’re as stressed and sick of it as she is—rides a tight line between effective and cartoonish, especially with the ba-bump, ba-bump of a heartbeat thrumming in the background. Silvers’ dedication to panic and Lussier’s placement of her body against the world allows her to cower and crawl animalistically, as if to say, “This is what my fear has reduced me to.” Solid blocking—collapsing Silvers’ spindly figure into a straining crouch as she reaches for a package just beyond her door—build suspense as her phobia and her paranoia start to reinforce each other.
The sloppiness with which the lead’s mental state is developed, as well as its resolutely stilted dialogue and terrible online teen-speak, isn’t helped by an absolute brake-slamming pace-killer in the middle of the episode. There’s plenty of fine acting and meaningful framing… but not only does it amount to nothing, it strangles the episode’s excitement, undoing the first forty-five minutes of work. When the question of sanity is resolved so early, meandering around the outskirts with additional characters only seems like treading water.
“The Body” also had plenty of pacing issues, seeming to suggest that Into the Dark’s investment in TV movies is overreaching its scripts’ potential. The second installment’s ultimately goofy treatment of its gendered power struggle and anxiety issues indicates that Into the Dark’s creative team wasn’t looking to explore the story’s potential that deeply in the first place.
Yet, adequately entertaining, with a couple of great lead performances (a list which includes Mulroney’s pulsing forehead veins) and a deliciously intense end, “Flesh & Blood” is a pretty-if-stupid B-movie whose schlockiness has plenty to unpack for those looking for an easy thrill. Or those looking for Mulroney wearing tight henleys. For fans of murder-daddies, there’s lots of fine flesh to pick from the skeletal script’s bones. For everyone else, it’s proof that Into the Dark’s quality is heavily tied to the team behind the individual entries. Don’t give up on it yet, holiday horror fans.
Into the Dark’s “Flesh & Blood” is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.