A pregnant young woman decides to make the trek from her home in Mexico to the US to try and get a better life for herself and her unborn child. The trip and arrival are rough to say the least and what she finds once across the border is not quite as expected.
Written by James Benson, Efrén Hernández, and Gigi Saul Guerrero who also directed, Culture Shock explores the crisis at the border, the reasons behind migrants taking such risks for a chance at a better life, and what the American Dream represents to some. Here this of course takes a dark turn quickly and the film goes into a territory that is well-known of horror fans, that of everything going wrong, very very wrong. This episode of Into the Dark from Hulu and Blumhouse is one that is quite different from the others in that it’s shot in both English and Spanish, but also in that it feels very of the moment in more ways than one and pushes the viewer to think about current issues like politics, immigration, unwanted/unplanned pregnancies, rape, etc. The mix of both English and Spanish, the Mexican culture permeating the story and the esthetics in some parts as well as the horror elements are pure Saul Guerrero as her fans have come to expect. This one may be a bit more on the tame side for the gore compared with some of her work, but the thematics and the approach feel very much hers here. Following the great La Quinceañera released last year, which was a collection of webisodes strung together as a features, Culture Shock is Saul Guerrero’s feature directorial debut and what a debut this is. Here she shows mastery for her craft and an understanding on how to put stakes up and then up them as the film moves along. She’s also not afraid to go where the story needs to go and use a strong, yet intimidating opening. Her work here is done in a way that even that opening does not feel exploitative even though it’s brutal and hits like a ton of bricks. Then, as the film advances, she shift gears to something that can only be described as Pleasantville on acid or Disney’s American Nightmare. Those sequences in the small town where the lead finds herself are night and day with the rest of the film and that contrast gives the film a powerful result.
The cast for Culture Shock is composed of the perfect performers for each part. In the lead, Martha Higareda is absolutely sublime, going from sad to goal-oriented to lost to ready to fight. Her character arc is amazingly well-written and feels like a young woman who is truly looking for what is best for herself and her unborn child. She will go to great lengths to be the best she can be and offer the best for her child, no matter the cost to herself. Higareda gives a riveting performance here that sets the tone for the entire film as she evolves and learns about own self and about what it means to be truly strong and get what you need. This is one of those performances that make the film they are in and this one is just perfect for the part. Another cast member perfect for her part is Barbara Crampton as Betty, a sort of almost Stepword Wife perfect housewife who is obsessed about making the perfect soup and keeping the baby asleep. Her perfection is taken to the extreme and turns into something completely creepy very quickly, something Crampton fully commits to and shines in. Her work here is something that will be remembered for a long time. The rest of the cast is about as fantastic with Richard Cabral as Santo, a character depicted as evil from the start, but who is much more than what the surface suggests. Cabral plays this part with great nuance and shows that evil is not always what you think by giving his character layers and multiple facets that show in how he reacts to each situation thrown at him. Rounding out the main cast is Shawn Ashmore as Thomas, whose character and arc are better left un-spoiled so that the surprises can truly work here. His work is great and he does something great with everything his character comes across with his depth and commitment showing and bringing a lot to the story.
The world these characters and actors evolve in a one that is visually stunning, with harsh locations at first, then a perfectly perfect small town USA with perfectly perfect Americans living in it. Here the locations, production design, and costumes were given particular attention. Unfortunately, the names of the very talented humans behind these are not found online just yet, but they are amazing at what they do. The costumes are simply perfect (yes that word again), the color schemes, the fabrics, the designs, the way everything comes together with the décor and how it all looks once put together in the small town works wonders at creating something that feels just right for the film while also feeling like something is way off. All of this is shot carefully by Byron Werner whose cinematography works great for the film and brings the two styles in the different parts of the film together is cohesive manner. The editing by John Quinn helps bring it all together and create a unified world once everything is revealed.
Culture Shock is a timely film with themes that will hit home for just about anyone watching it. The film is done with great care for the subject matter. Gigi Saul Guerrero’s sensibilities and talent are the perfect match to this story and how to tell it in an impactful way. Her work here shows that she needs to be given more features and be moved from low budget to much bigger ones. The horror genre has a talented writer and director in her and should pay more attention. This film shows that she can take hard subject matter, mix it with horror, and make an entertaining film in the process. Of course, Culture Shock, like any film, is a team effort and she was the first person to remind everyone of this at the screening. From the cast to the décor to the costumes and of course the writing, Culture Shock is a film that was created by a full crew of talented people and their passion shows through on the screen.