3 out of 5
Directed by: Marcus Dunstan
It’s clear literally from the first scene: we’re watching an Into the Dark helmed by someone who actually knows how to direct. Which isn’t to say that every previous entry hasn’t been directed well – although that has been the case with some of them – but the ones that are actually visually noteworthy, and not a does-the-job attempt or a forced stylistic mishmash are very few, if not non-existent. Not only does Pilgrim – the second season’s Thanksgiving entry – arrive with an original (if shallow) setup, but co-writer / director Marcus Dunstan presents it with such confidence that it fully registers as a late night B-movie from the jump… which probably sounds like an insult, but it’s what Into the Dark, I’d say, should be, and Dunstan would seem to agree. And by embracing that, with extra touches like the zoom cuts of Raimi a slight fish-eye lensing akin to shlock horror, and an excellent, self-aware score from Douglas Pipes, Dunstan is able to stitch together a wholly entertaining 90 minute flick out of actually very little.
Bonus? It’s actually about the holiday it’s supposed to be about.
Cody (Reign Edwards) loves her brother, Tate (Antonio Raul Corbo), and has a seeming grudging respect for her rather perpetually distracted father, Shane (Kerr Smith), but cannot stand any and every attempt her stepmother, Anna (Courtney Henggeler) makes at trying to parent. The briefest of flashbacks hints that Cody’s real mom left many Thanksgivings ago, so the announcement by Anna that she’s going to be hosting some special festivities on this Thanksgiving, with some new attempt at forcing the family to bond, are not received well. Dunstan never exactly goes into Cody’s history, and similarly doesn’t force opinions down our throat: Cody is a typical teenage daughter, but she’s neither stereotypically obnoxious or cast as being ‘in the right’ against her parents; she’s difficult, but relatable. Similarly, while Anna has tics of overbearing film mothers, nothing she does outright sets us against her, and when we witness Dad, ‘the good parent’ not doing a great job of being either supportive or a mediator, we find a bit of sympathy for Anna’s plight.
The movie moves rather slowly through its setup: bringing us to the Thanksgiving party, building up to whatever the forthcoming surprise is that will make our featured family extra thankful this year. Because the characters are well drawn, while this bit is something of a waiting game, it’s not uninteresting to watch, and Dunstan adds another interesting note to developing the relationships, by having Cody overhear some gossiping neighbors make fun of Anna’s attempts at being the perfect parent, which apparently extend beyond activities with her family. Again dodging convention, we don’t have a typical scene of Cody standing up for her mum – it’s just flavoring.
We get to the surprise: a live-in Thanksgiving reenactment, with two pilgrims in full Pilgrim attire: Ethan and Patience (Peter Giles, Elyse Levesque). The weirdness can now kick into effect.
Leading up to the celebratory meal, Ethan and Patience set to converting Cody’s house and its inhabitants’ habits (and, rather confusingly, that of Cody’s boyfriend’s) to be ‘era-appropriate’, with candles instead of light bulbs, foraging for meals, Bible lessons, building shacks in the backyard. ‘Pilgrim’ lets this dangle out to the perfect extent of ridiculousness to be acceptable, with Cody of course questioning everything as Anna somewhat willfully goes along with some seemingly nice changes like a ban on cellphones. Ethan and Patience are creepy as all heck, of course, but nothing outright is wrong.
I mean, it does, eventually, go wrong, at which point the movie – already quirky and fun – gets immensely entertaining.
Pilgrim remains rather vague about quite a bit, which is good and bad. Because the whole thing is kind of ridiculous, it’s nice that there’s no hackneyed explanation to things, and, as mentioned, Dunstan does a good job of building characters and tone without explaining it all to us. At the same time, because there’s not really a crux around which the movie revolves, and it’s just a slow boil into weirdness, it’s a pretty fleeting experience.
But I’ll take an expertly crafted, fleeting experience over Into the Darks that feel like their shoved into their genre.