Last October, Hulu began a horror anthology series called In the Dark, releasing one “episode” per month. They began with “The Body,” a Halloween themed episode that takes place over one spooky night, but I didn’t start watching until “New Year, New You,” and even then I didn’t fully grasp what the series was about, or why Hulu was producing it. “New Year, New You” follows a group of friends over the course of a New Year’s Eve party as they try to kill an old friend that has become Instagram famous and egotistical. The episodes are long, about an hour and a half, or the length of a short movie. They have good casts and production values, and they’re all campy. Very, very campy. (Spoilers for “Treehouse” to follow)
We’ve talked on the podcast before about how Susan and I really like Jimmi Simpson, and find him attractive (though I admit he’s really great at playing total creeps). “Treehouse” stars Simpson as the egotistical Peter Rake, a celebrity chef with a television show and a string of successful restaurants. He goes to stay at his family home for a few days while his daughter goes to her mother’s wedding, claiming he needs to keep a “low profile” for a little while as his lawyer fixes a situation for him. Once at the old, creepy mansion, Peter greets the old housekeeper Agnes, who constantly smokes and says witty things around the house, and her son, who...well I don’t know what he does besides be creepy. It’s clear that the film is trying to set up some horror movie tropes, so the viewer can make predictions, only to be proven wrong. The setup is sluggish, and not particularly effective, but it’s fun seeing Jimmi Simpson inhabiting this sort of confident, disgusting character.
Soon, Peter begins helping out a bachelorette party staying next door, giving them candles and flashlights when their power goes out, and then offering to cook them dinner. It’s clear that he’s trying to sleep with one of them, named Kara (played by Julianna Guill), and that he wants to impress her. After he invites the group over for an elaborate dinner, he insists that they’re helping him more than he’s treating them, allowing him to work out some recipes. As the girls eat, Peter gets drunker and drunker, giving big speeches about women’s rights and how he thinks childbirth is beautiful and he’d do it if he could. The women listen attentively, but at the end of the night dismissing Peter and telling him to go to bed. He’s obviously more than drunk as he stumbles off to his room, telling the women any of them can come up and spoon with him if they want. (Who says that?!)
Peter wakes up in bed with one of the women, and then his real nightmare begins. They tie him up, threaten him with castration, and reveal they’re witches. They perform rituals, taking his hair, his blood, his fingernails. They scare him. As they do their rituals, they say the names of women he’s sexually assaulted, and reveal his sins back to him. In a particularly striking scene, two witches reenact one of his assaults while Peter weakly asks them to stop. He doesn’t want to see what he’s done, though he clearly recognizes the scene.
Each time Peter is confronted with his past sins, he has some reason why what he did wasn’t so bad after all. The women led him on, they wanted it really, it wasn’t what it looked like. Peter’s most egregious assault is on Kara’s sister, who he raped in his childhood treehouse (hence the name of the movie). Later, Kara’s sister killed herself with a knife from Peter’s line of kitchen supplies.
The witches wear him down, until he admits his wrongdoing and promises to never do it again. He believes the women are witches and that they’ll kill him, but the end of the movie clouds that, leaving it somewhat ambiguous if the women actually have powers. Regardless, Peter has a change of heart and--in a tender moment with his daughter--promises to do better.
“Treehouse” is not good, but it is fun. This installment in the series is themed around “The Ides of March,” but it also seems themed around the #MeToo movement. The women are taking direct action against a man known for assaulting women, and it’s difficult to not cheer for that. We, the audience, have clear proof that Peter is the creep we think he is, and it’s reassuring to see him get taken down a peg or ten. These sorts of narratives allow viewers to feel like there’s some sense of justice in the world, even if there’s really not. It’s wish fulfillment.
There are still some good things about this installment, of course. There are striking images and some twists and turns. Stephanie Beatriz appears as one of the witches, and seems to have fun with her role (even though her writing is kind of strange--at one point she exits a scene by saying, “Pray for Puerto Rico!”).
I’m not sure what Hulu is trying to achieve with their horror series, but I don’t hate it. We need bad horror movies--both to distract us from real life problems and to make the scary seem kind of campy and jokey. Hulu’s ability to procure top level actors to be in their television anthology brings a level of prestige that’s becoming increasingly common in television now. The line between television and movies is blurring, and blurring even further with Hulu’s hour and a half “TV show” Into the Dark, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it means that television and film critics might need to redefine their roles in the future.