REVIEW: ‘Culture Shock’ is Real Horror, the Kind We Experience Daily

Reading Time: 6 minutes

With the fireworks bursting in the air and hotdogs on the grill, Culture Shock, from Mexican director Gigi Saul Guerrero, is July’s edition of Blumhouse Television’s Into the Dark anthology series. Having partnered with Hulu last year to bring an anthology series of movies, Culture Shock is a social horror film about the American Dream that tackles issues of identity, immigration, and racism by mixing elements of The Matrix and The Stepford Wives to tell a story that is just too real.

Culture Shock tells the story of Marisol (Martha Higareda), a woman who survived extensive trauma at the hands of someone she trusted. Know that he has crossed the border and she looks to confront him by crossing too. However, she is forced to use a coyote, a term used to describe a person who helps immigrants cross the United States/Mexico border. Often smugglers in it for the money, the front half of the film builds tension by focussing on the real terror of having crossing the border for women who are alone.

The process is painfully explained, building tension as we learn more and more about what Marisol must do, and the choices that her and other women have to make. They have to expect to be raped while on the way there, they have to abandon their beliefs, and they have to pray. Guerrero expertly crafts a narrative that never feels like an exposition bomb, instead, we’re dropped into a pool of fear that is all too real as she forces us to look at the desperation of those crossing the border illegally. We empathize with Marisol’s pain, and as other characters enter the journey, Santo (Richard Cabral) and Ricky (Ian Inigo), we have more points of emotion.

We watch as good people are taken advantage of, we watch Marisol fight off a man who is supposed to help her, and we watch Ricky, a child from Central America pretending to be Mexican to escape danger as he crosses the border, and throughout it all we watch as Marisol struggles with her PTSD. Throughout her story, there are sharp cuts to moments of trauma, grounding her and keeping her hyperaware, the fear ultimately pushing her to survive.

While the first act of Culture Shock uses terror, the moment before the scare, to build up fear with reality that Latinx and immigrants in the United States know all too well, the narrative pivots, throwing the film into the realm of border science fiction in the same vein as 2008’s Sleep Dealer from Alex Rivera. With this, the horror is two-fold. The horror of crossing the border, fleeing pain at the risk of entering more pain, the horror of coyotes, the terror of separation, and ultimately the position of being a woman in the middle of it all. Then, as the name of the film implies, we are shocked out of this and into a realm of vibrant pastels and perfection presented as the American Dream.

If you’re unaware of the meaning of the film’s name, culture shock is “a feeling of confusion that results from suddenly experiencing a culture with customs that are not familiar to you.” This isn’t just a concept but a real feeling of anxiety and fear that many immigrants experience. This is amplified by situations that force assimilation and strip them of their cultural identities. The narrative of assimilation in the United States is central to the story of the film, and given the very real and very long history of forced and violent assimilation in the United States, it stings.

Personally, my mother was born in a time in central Texas where children were punished violently in their schools by their teachers when they spoke Spanish. With physical violence, the Spanish was beaten out of a generation and as such, many parents refused to teach Spanish to their children, internalizing their fear and believing that they were saving us from a future of being looked down on and discriminated against. I am, one of those children. The state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against Native communities in the United States has also been well documented as contributing to intergenerational trauma experienced by tribes today.

While the last acts of Culture Shock live in a world of science fiction, the horror is still real, it’s just one experienced by those once they reach the United States. As the film transitions to Stepford world, we learn that every character we’ve met until now has been converted into the ideal American.

The Spanish is gone, the dress is wholesome, Santo’s tattoos are gone, and while Marisol makes a reference of paisanos everywhere in the town, she is reassured that they are American. As the film continues to show Marisol navigating the creepy town, we see that everyone, even in their clearly different background have been made the same, melted together into the most basic ideas of American life. 

This is a part of the Immigration and Cultural Rehabilitation Center, and it unravels as Marisol fights back against the assimilation. She actively works to maintain her identity, even when it causes her great pain, even when it makes her question everything as those around her gaslight her. Instead of giving in, instead of maintaining a code-switched identity, she pushes back and breaks free. She comes into herself, using Spanish, the Mexican anthem, and a Santa Muerte prayer to ground others, to remind them.

As Marisol figures out the sadistic nature of the town, we see sounds and close-ups of the mundane shocking us out of any sense of ease that the bright colors might illicit. Like Marisol, we never trust it, even when lulled by it.

Higareda is truly phenomenal. Personally, I became a fan of hers after she portrayed Kristen Ortega in Netflix’s Altered Carbon and now, I am convinced that she has everything it takes to become a genre darling. Her fear is palpable, her sadness, her desperation; Higareda portrays every emotion, acting in both English and Spanish with perfect timing and depth. In addition to her, Cabral is phenomenal, even with his little screen time, while Shawn Ashmore‘s Thomas keeps us guessing on his true motives.

With massive ICE deportation raids happening this weekend, with children being separated from their parents, with immigrants seeking asylum being kept in what are effectively concentration camps, this film hurts. Culture Shock hurts in the way that great horror is supposed to. For those of us familiar with the fear being highlighted on screen – in this case trauma around immigration and fear of having your culture decimated in order to succeed – it hits us with reality and validates our terror. Similarly to Blumhouse’s other social horror film Get Out, it forces those unfamiliar with this daily fear to look at it, to stare at it, to be made uncomfortable by it and ultimately move them to act.

With the real world issues mentioned above, Culture Shock focuses on how the state isn’t helping the American Dream to become obtainable but rather “paying you to keep [immigrants] out of it.” In the current climate where even Latinx citizens are forced with dealing with volatile situations where speaking Spanish or just existing cause us to verbally or physically abused, the horror of this film is too real. It’s daily. It’s life. And for those in the detention centers, there is no town to be kept in, no semblance of goodness, just real fear and abuse.

To put it simply, Culture Shock is a film that everyone needs to see. While I wish it had received a larger release, it’s quality is not hurt by its status as a Hulu Original. It is not only Into the Dark’s best installment but one of the best horror films of the year. It will change you, and it will use reality to do it. With news reports that mimic what we see in real life, it will hit you and at the very least make you understand fear.

Rating: 10/10