We’re just days away from 2019. This is the time when resolutions are made. Next year I will be successful, or next year I will lose that weight, or next year I’m going to limit my cat videos to one a day. We feel inspired to be someone different. To take control of our lives. The latest episode of Into the Dark: New Year, New You, asks what happens when these pledges become more than just goals, and take on a dark obsession…
…The fourth episode of the Blumhouse produced series Into the Dark, which releases a feature-length episode each month centered around a holiday, New Year, New You is directed by Sophia Takal (Always Shine) and written by Takal & Adam Gaines (Negative). The episode centers on four friends from childhood, one of whom, Danielle (Carly Chaikin), has become estranged from the group after moving to LA and becoming a successful Youtuber with a show all about self-healing. Jealous of her success and troubled by their past, Alexis (Suki Waterhouse) has other plans that go beyond “re-connecting”.
Like all truly great horror films, New Year lives and dies with its characters. There are many strengths to Takal’s film, but it is the characters which she and Gaines have created which deserves the most applause. Danielle, Alexis, Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) are all fascinating people in their own right. We’ll get to Danielle and Alexis, but I want to point out how well developed Kayla and Chloe are first. In traditional slashers, supporting characters are often one-dimensional at best, if not a clichéd stereotype. But in this case, Kayla is a gay woman, still uncomfortable in her own skin because of the torment she received growing up, whereas Chloe is a sad soul trying desperately to put on a happy face when all she really wants is to be noticed. These personal struggles, along with some great performances, allows the filmmakers to invest us deeply into these supporting roles and connect on a personal level with them, which is important, because New Year is setting the viewer up for a complex cat and mouse game, and we need to understand the choices which all four of these girls make in order for the story to be successful.
While the entire cast is beyond exceptional, it’s Waterhouse, and in particular, Chaikin, who steal the show as two very different types of monsters. New Year begins by following Alexis, another tortured soul, once a wannabe actress with dreams of becoming a star, forever crushed by the facial scar which destroyed her confidence along with her aspirations. So, it only makes sense that her jealousy over Danielle’s own career has reached a point of obsession within Alexis. New Year revels in the theme of wanting to be someone else, and none express that more strongly than Alexis. Part of the brilliance of her character is that because Alexis is so unhinged, the audience doesn’t know who to trust. Initially told through Alexis’ perception, we as viewers are forced to question whether or not her viewpoint is truthful. It’s difficult to trust someone who punches a mirror early on without so much as a flinch. Takal’s direction, along with masterful editing paint an even darker picture of frustration and madness within Alexis. All through the first half of the film, Alexis is hearing/seeing other characters, especially Danielle, repeat things to her, phrases which get under her skin, a manifestation of the pent-up rage building inside her. This drives the audience to relate to her, despite her crumbling sanity, because I’m sure most if not all of us have felt that seething sensation that builds up when someone is getting on your nerves. We just tend not to take it as far as Alexis does.
Only a few minutes into getting to know Danielle, though, it’s easy to see where that frustration comes from. Danielle is the embodiment of the rest of the world’s perception of Hollywood and internet stars. She’s picky about what she eats, trendy to the point of obnoxiousness, and so egotistical, that she thinks her bullshit advice on cutting dairy from your diet is curing people of serious diseases. Danielle is so caught up in this false narrative which she has created, that one can understand the way in which her friends despise her. We can also begin to see how Danielle is the perfect foil to Alexis. While Alexis hungers to be someone else, Danielle does everything she can to avoid showing who she really is. The two are one in the same, but on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, setting up a wonderfully engaging mental brawl between the two.
Without giving too much away, the utter genius of New Year comes from the way in which it pits Danielle and Alexis against each other. Each is their own type of monster, one driven by success, the other, anger, that what is set-up as a slasher film ultimately becomes an intense cat and mouse game of manipulation, deceit, and vengeance, with Chloe and Kayla caught in the crossfire between the psychological battle of these two villains. And yes, both Alexis and Danielle are respective villains in their own way, because even though once can be perceived as “good”, neither of their actions are what would normally be attributed to “good people”, to say the least. Waterhouse and Chaikin will blow you away with how carefully their performances walk the line between convincing friend and psychotic killer.
Perhaps it’s too high of praise, but Takal deserves to be commended for her vaguely Hitchcockian approach to the tension filled tale. New Year is surprisingly well composed, with some exceptional cinematography from Lyn Moncrief. Takal shoots her film in a way which adds suspense to even the smallest of moments. A simple sip of champagne carries with it a deep sense of dread in this film. From beginning to end, New Year follows the rule of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table”, the concept being that the audience knows something is about to happen which the cast is unaware of, and the director builds the suspense by dragging out the anticipation for that moment for as long as possible. Takal proves herself an expert at this, as there is not a moment where we as the viewer are not waiting for something awful to happen. Couple that with a haunting score by Michael Montes, and New Year is so well built for maximum tension, that the film should come with a warning sign: Those with heart conditions should approach with caution.
As it should be with such unpredictable characters, New Year is a twisty thrill-ride with so many surprises that your jaw will be sore from hitting the floor repeatedly. Again and again, Takal and Gaines’ script takes us in unexpected directions. Just when we think we know what the outcome will be, our characters flip the script, revealing a whole new set of obstacles. We think we know who these four women are at the beginning, but the filmmakers make sure to tell us that we don’t know shit, and in this case, I was thrilled to be so, so wrong. New Year seems to state that, under the right circumstances or motivations, all of us are really just wolves in sheep’s clothing when you get down to our core, a theme highlighted by carefully designed images which show our cast in various forms of “reflection”, whether it be in mirrors, water, videos, etc. Which is the true form of these girls being the intriguing question.
Really the only negative mark on New Year is the script’s vague reference to a rather important event which occurred in the girl’s past, related to the scar on Alexis’ cheek. That scar, and what happened all of those years ago, is a key element to the premise of the film, yet the audience is never given a clear picture of exactly what happened. Takal and Gaines provide enough detail surrounding the traumatic event to at least explain why it has affected these girls the way it has, but without knowing exactly what happened, there is a bit of disconnect towards the end. Without details, we’re left unable to fully understand the emotions surrounding that night. I suspect that’s because the filmmakers want us to question who the real villain of the film is, but the backstory is simply too vague for us to care much about it. It’s who these characters really are that is most valuable to the viewer, and in all reality, they’ve always been these people, even before the tragedy. What happened in the past is a mere catalyst for a story that I feel would’ve gotten to the same climax, regardless of the secret between Danielle and Alexis.
Earlier in the month, I considered Pooka to be Into the Dark’s crowning achievement of an episode, but now, I’m not so sure. New Year, New You is a pulse-pounding roller-coaster that will shock and awe viewers. There is no doubt in my mind that there are great things on the horizon for Takal, who is now established as a filmmaker to watch heading into 2019.
You can now stream Into the Dark: New Year, New You on Hulu.
By Matt Konopka