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Into the Dark: New Year, New You (Review)

Into the Dark is the new anthology series from Blumhouse.

A horror anthology series seemed inevitable. There is a rich tradition of television series built around using the anthology format to tell horror stories; The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt. More than that, recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of anthology television. This is most obvious in the seasonal anthology structure of series like American Crime Story or American Horror Story, but is also reflected in the popularity and success of series like Black Mirror or Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

New year is the perfect time for… don’t make me say it

Horror is particularly suited to the anthology format. After all, having regular characters in a familiar setting tends to dilute both the suspense and the dread that runs through so much horror. The anthology format allows for a variety of characters, locations, formats and themes. Beyond that, Into the Dark is built around ninety-minute episodes, meaning that the series functions as an anthology of holiday-themed horror stories all telling self-contained tales.

Into the Dark is an effective reminder of just how much the medium of television has changed in recent years. Is Into the Dark best thought of as a television series or six feature films? The episodes are released online at Hulu. Unlike other net-native series Into the Dark eschews both the “all at once” binge model favoured by Netflix and the “one week at a time” approach that defines network television. Episodes are released when appropriate, rather than adhering to a rigid structure. It is an illustration of how fluid media is at the moment.

Pushed to the edge.

As the title implies, New Year, New You is the New Year entry in the series. Pooka! had been released for Christmas earlier in the month. New Year, New You is anchored in the themes of the holiday, in the ideas of renewal and reinvention. This is an interesting and audacious approach for a horror story to take. Certainly, New Year is a holiday that does not lend itself to horror as readily as Halloween or even Thanksgiving, and lacks the heightened irony of building a horror story around Christmas.

Perhaps accounting for this, New Year, New You leans heavily into dark comedy. The film does not work entirely consistently, effectively transitioning between three separate modes of horror within its ninety-minute runtime. There is very little novel or innovative to be found structurally in New Year, New You, which blazes through the familiar horror movie clichés with little in the way of insight or energy. There are moments when New Year, New You works rather well, particularly as it embraces absurdity in its third act. However, it is just too unfocused and uneven.

Deal with it.

Much has been made of the fact that New Year, New You is the first Blumhouse film to be directed by a woman. Jason Blum generated no shortage of controversy when asked about the company’s track record with female talent, and it seems like at least some of the attention around New Year, New You is a result of the company making a conscious effort to do better in that regard, to adopt a broader approach to contemporary horror storytelling.

New Year, New You is directed by Sophia Takal. Takal has a very clear affection for the horror genre. Perhaps befitting a film that is split fairly evenly between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there is a decidedly nostalgic bent to New Year, New You as early as the opening credits. The block white text looks like something from a non-descript horror of the nineties. The early sequences are inspaced with flashbacks and haunted memories that are frequently overlaid with the characters remember those events, in a manner that evokes an older style of filmmaking.

It can be hard to pin friends down over the holidays.

Structurally, New Year, New You breaks down neatly into three segments, each segment clearly influenced by a particular style of horror film. The first half of the film is given over to those horror films in which a bunch of people (whether strangers or friends) gather together as tension simmers beneath their interactions; The Invitation might be the best recent example of the form. The second half escalates quickly in a kidnapping psychological thriller like Suicide Kings. The final quarter of the movie is given over to a full-blown slasher film.

This is an interesting way to approach the film, and Takal understands each of the three genres through which she is moving. The first half builds a mounting sense of paranoia and claustrophia, the camera often slowly creeping up on characters’ faces, suggesting unarticulated grievances or anxieties; eyes staring into mirrors, emotions quickly hidden during seemingly friendly interactions, the occasional awkward silence that hangs over the conversation.

“Don’t worry. This is perfectly under control.”

The opening stretch of the film runs just a little too long. New Year, New You might work better where the structure broken into clean thirds rather than halves. The first forty minutes are given over to a sense of mounting dread and uncertainty that transparently hinges on a very cynical act of concealment from the audience; there is a long stretch at the beginning of the story where none of the character actions make any real sense given how the story develops. More than that, while tension does mount, it builds just a little bit too slowly towards the inevitable explosion.

The second half of the film has to take up the narrative slack. This leads to a bizarre situation where the tone shifts rapidly almost from one scene to another. The early sequences are grounded in very personal and very relatable anxieties; the micro and passive aggression of long-term friends, the bullying that is so subtle that it might not even properly register, the short and clipped interactions that hint at long-concealed grievances.

Hanging out at the club house.

New Year, New You is the story of four women who reunite after years apart, dealing with everything that has passed between them. The nature of their relationship is gradually revealed, as are their insecurities and their emotional wounds. In a delightful touch, the weather conditions around the house respond to the emotions of the women inside; a heated argument blows out a fuse box, while lightning flashes during a heated exchange. This feels like an abstract social horror, a tale about how hell is actually other people.

In contrast, once the clock strikes midnight, the film has to escalate very far and very quickly. The result is shift in genre, not only between different types of horror, but also between a mode of psychological horror and a broader comedic horror. The characters in New Year, New You were drawn relatively broadly to begin with, but the second half reduces them to cartoons following bizarre internal logic. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; horror lends itself to heightened storytelling. This just feels like too sharp a twist.

Danielle dares.

The third section of the film also suffers from this issue. Tamal does a good job as director, consciously referencing and homaging the cinematic language of slashers. There’s a gleeful and demented quality to the third act escalation within the film, which involves lots of panicked zooms on closed doors and more than a few blood-splattered breadcrumb trails. At one point, a character realises that they don’t have the butcher knife to hand. “Oh sh!t,” they awkwardly apologise. “I forgot something.”

While the third act works reasonably well as a skewered take on the slasher movie template, threaded through with passive-aggression and social anxiety, it doesn’t entire fit with the film’s internal logic. New Year, New You is a horror movie that is very invested in the present, in the internet age. One of the four friends at the centre of the story is Danielle, who is a self-help guru online, who makes money selling “no cruelty” products and who might have slept with Elon Musk.

Best of Facebook friends.

Film and television are populated with biting satires of the generation who came of age in the era of social media. These portrayals can often be heavy-handed and condescending, trite and ill-judged. Films like Contagion play as moral panic narratives about the dangers of what might be found on “the internet.” The stock criticisms have been repeated so often that they can be recited from memory: social media is shallow, social media does not do its research, social media is exploitative, the kinds of people who live on social media are vacuous and borderline sociopathic.

It is entirely possible to build convincing and engaging horror movies about the internet. Blumhouse recently released Cam through Netflix, a film about a cam girl who finds her life usurped. Unfriended and Unfriended: The Dark Web are drawn a little broadly, but they understand the basic mechanics of how the internet actually works. Even A Simple Favour captures the image of the social media influencer without veering too far into the realm of self-parody.

New Year, New You feels a little too broad and a little too shallow in its engagement with Danielle as a social media influencer, and the tension that this creates with her three closest friends. There’s no small irony in the fact that New Year, New You is being released online rather than in cinema or on television, because it really seems like a confused fifty-year old grumpily muttering something about “kids these days.”

(This lack of understanding about how the internet works is reflected in other more subtle ways. At one point in the film, a character is presenting a web video. The video runs for about a minute, and then the camera pulls back to reveal that it is being watched on a screen. However, the actual bar beneath the video suggests that the episode has only been playing for seven seconds. It is a small detail, but one that illustrates a disinterest in how the internet works.)

Stepping on one another.

Even in New Year, New You is a little too broad for any of its satire to land in meaningful way, it is still enjoyable on a purely visceral level. As much as the transition from the more low-key horror of the first half might be jarring, there is something delightfully dark in the glee with which New Year, New You embraces the convention of an altogether trashier sort of horror film. The characters navigating that genre framework are just different enough from the norm that there’s some fun to be had in watching them try to adapt.

Some prove more adaptable than others. Danielle has a very immediate and fundamental understanding of how the slasher movie set-up works, perhaps the best application of the “social media influencers are sociopaths” message that runs through the whole of the film. Chloe is impressed at how quick-thinking her friend turns out to be. “God, you’re good at this,” Chloe remarks as Danielle is dropped out of her comfort zone into a genre that operates on surprisingly similar principles.

Hug it out.

New Year, New You is light and fun in places. None of its bigger ideas really work, and the film suffers from some pacing issues about when exactly to shift from one type of horror movie into another. The result is a frustratingly uneven film that works well enough at times, but not as consistently as it needs to.

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