When Hulu and Blumhouse began their 12-episode, holiday-themed horror series, Into the Dark, back in October, it was hard to tell if it would be a worthwhile experiment. The first film, The Body, had an intriguing premise, but got sidetracked from the bizarre romance at its center by a trio of obnoxious secondary characters. The second installment, Flesh and Blood, was a clever allegory about growing up with a wicked performance by Dermot Mulroney at is center and the third episode, Pooka!, is bonkers fun even if it doesn’t quite work. New Year, New You, the fourth installment in the monthly movie series is more reminiscent of Flesh and Blood’s grounded tone and it may be the best entry yet.
Directed and co-written by the studio’s first female director, Sophia Takal, the film rather appropriately explores toxic female friendship. It takes place–as the title suggests–on New Year’s Eve/Day, when four high school friends meet again for the first time in years to have one last hurrah at Alexis’s (Suki Waterhouse) childhood home before her parents sell it. It’s a deceptively innocuous premise and for nearly half of the film, Takal and co-writer Adam Gaines keep us guessing about how and when things will turn scary. However, while the action takes a minute to get going, Takal does a clever job of building tension until it does.
For one, there’s composer Michael Montes’s score. Low and ominous, it recalls the mystical, mysterious Gheorghe Zamfir pan flute pieces in the film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock (an apt comparison for reasons that would spoil everything). Even when Alexis is just flipping the circuits in the basement or she and the other girls are blowing up balloons, Montes’s score keeps the viewer alert, just waiting for something to deliver on the brief glimpses of unexplained violence that begin the film.
However, Takal’s most striking technique is the camerawork. Filmed by cinematographer, Lyn Moncrief, the film is full of slow zooms and cleverly constructed shots. Take the moment during the opening credits when Alexis walks past a golf bag full of clubs. We don’t know then if the zoom is deliberate, but it’s no surprise when they make an appearance in the film’s climax. Even more impressive is Moncrief’s use of mirrors. In one scene, as Alexis gets ready for the party, Waterhouse appears no less than four times in the frame. It’s a stunning shot that must have taken forever to set up, but it’s not just a clever trick, it also affirms what we’ve already come to suspect: there’s something we just can’t understand about Alexis.
While Chloe (Melissa Bergland) and Kayla (Kirby-Howell Baptiste) are seemingly normal young women, Alexis is quiet and intense in an off-putting way. We eventually learn of a breakdown during her junior year of college that caused her to drop out and her parents reinforced the windows after some unnamed “accident”, but Alexis’s weirdness is all over Waterhouse’s performance. While the other girls and even their YouTube famous friend, Danielle (Chaikin), are talkative and often playful, Alexis seems like she’s just waiting for an opportunity to strike. And while the performance gives the film’s first half its tension, it can also be a little one-note until the big twist is revealed.
It also doesn’t help that while Waterhouse is the film’s true lead, Chaikin is the standout. Most will probably know the actress as Darlene in Mr. Robot, but a few will recognize her from the ABC comedy, Suburgatory, where she played lovable airhead, Dalia Royce. Danielle is like an alternate universe Dalia, with a higher IQ. From Danielle’s first scene, where she spouts self-help platitudes on her YouTube channel, we assume her superficiality must be part of why Alexis hates her. However, though she checks her reflection at the first mirror she encounters in Alexis’s home, once she begins interacting with the other girls, Chaikin plays Danielle with unexpected sincerity. She seems genuinely interested in Chloe and Kayla’s problems and the more time we spend with them, the more Alexis’s loathing seems like overblown jealousy. It’s difficult to say anymore without spoiling the film’s various twists, but the way Chaikin keeps us guessing at Danielle’s true nature alone makes New Year, New You worth watching.
Not every episode of Into the Dark has been a home run, but perhaps that’s inevitable. Unlike a season of American Horror Story or Black Mirror, which are the products of a single creator’s vision, the Blumhouse series is more collaborative. And while every episode has its merits, New Year, New You is the first episode in the series that proves that this crazy television experiment may actually work. It’s brutal and scary, but there’s an undercurrent of whip-smart satire that makes it feel like something new and exciting. Let’s hope the remaining eight episodes can do the same.