INTO THE DARK – TREEHOUSE
Starring: Jimmi Simpson, Julianna Guill, Stephanie Beatriz, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Sophia Del Pizzo, Mary McCormack, Amanda Walsh, Michael Weston
Director: James Roday
Writer: James Roday, Todd Harthan
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
After watching Into the Dark tackle Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s day, I was excited to see what holiday would be featured for the March entry of the Hulu anthology. The most obvious one that came to mind was St. Patrick’s Day. Parties and crowds! Wouldn’t that be the perfect recipe for mayhem and horror? But no, that wasn’t the one. Would it be Mardi Gras? Ash Wednesday? International Earth Day? No, no and no. So what holiday is left? Well, it turns out Treehouse features that most famous of holidays, the Ides of March! Wait, what? What’s the Ides of March?
Unless you’ve read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there’s a chance you may not even have heard of this holiday. In essence, it’s a day of reckoning, a day where debts come due — not only financial debts but rather any comeuppance coming your way. Now there’s an interesting holiday to base a horror story on, though it isn’t fully original. Poltergeist had all those restless ghosts, angry that their caskets and remains had been unceremoniously built over. Thinner had the “white man from town” dangerously lose weight for using the legal system to get away with vehicular homicide. Let’s not forget every Saw movie which had Jigsaw give his victims a taste of what they deserved. With that in mind, I was really excited to see what settling of debts story would be told in this sixth entry of Into the Dark.
Peter Rake (Jimmi Simpson Westworld) is a successful chef and has attained celebrity status. However, a recent controversy which has made tabloid headlines forces him to temporarily escape his public life. He heads to his childhood home, hoping to spend some time with his sister Gwen (Amanda Walsh). Through his brief interactions with his daughter and Lonnie (Michael Weston), we find out that Peter is arrogant, quick to insult others and lie to them. In fact, it’s not a stretch to state that Peter is an asshole. The only question left is how many people he’s wronged in his life and how that will factor into the Ides of March theme.
Soon after Peter’s arrival, Gwen ends up having to return to work, leaving him alone. Meanwhile, there’s a bachelorette party going on next door. A power outage brings one of the women over looking for candles and flashlights. Not surprising, Peter ends up inviting all of them over for supper the next day, which he offers to make. While serving them and engaging them in conversation, spewing off one-liners trying to impress them, Peter is oblivious to their mocking responses. If he’d been paying attention, he would have noticed that something was off and that it was the guests who were in control of the events.
Once the second act begins, director James Roday (Psych) isn’t subtle with the kind of comeuppance at play. Peter has treated women poorly in his past. He’s far from an exemplary human being, and he harbors a dark secret. In this time of the “me too” movement, Roday wants to make sure that Peter pays for his behaviors that would have gone unpunished in the past. However, it’s poorly done. What happens to Peter in the second act is just too exaggerated to be taken seriously. By the end of the episode, there were too many questions left as to what lesson or lessons Peter had learned. This lack of clarity seems to show that the point Roday was trying to make was missed. But that wasn’t the only thing that was wrong.
At its most basic, a horror film (or in this case, episode) should aim to scare, to frighten, to startle, or to disgust. Unfortunately, Treehouse fails to do any of those. Admittedly, the episode did start off well. Like the precursor to a storm, there’s an uncomfortable calm present throughout the first act. Though the women are friendly with Peter, there’s a tension, dormant violence waiting to be unleashed. Granted, knowing the meaning behind the Ides of March celebration biased my anticipation, but I was excited for what was coming. Well, it was a bit of a letdown.
The suspense from the first half is all but erased in the second half. The tone turns almost comedic rather than scary. The actions and the dialogue were over the top at times. Those familiar with Roday’s work will recognize his DNA throughout the episode. It felt as though Shawn and Gus (from Psych) were walking through it, putting their brand of quirkiness to the action. It might come across as a harsh evaluation, but the application of his idea didn’t really work.
The performances were good. Jimmi Simpson pulled off his nonchalant arrogance well. The man acted as though he was a gift to the world and it worked. However, his dialogue could have been better. There were too many pop culture references, and it felt unnatural. As though realizing it himself, Simpson delivers his lines with a tired attitude, affecting its impact on his guests. The women, Julianna Guill, Stephanie Beatriz, Sophia Del Pizzo, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Mary McCormack, were fun to watch in the first half as they respond to the onslaught of Peter’s comments, especially Guill’s character. That Peter never realizes his “charm” does everything but impress them is funny. However, in the second act, the scenarios they find themselves in are cheesy. Had this been an homage to eighties horror movies, it might have worked. But as is, it was disappointing.
Finally, I need to address the title, Treehouse, which is misleading. There is a treehouse on the Rake property, and it is seen a couple of times. I couldn’t help drawing a comparison with last year’s Hereditary and its treehouse which was more than just a visual prop. In Treehouse, it’s not until the end that its relevance is made clear. The problem is that by then, I had disconnected and didn’t really care about its meaning. That’s the problem with the episode. By the time it was done, nothing really stuck.
(** This last paragraph contains a SPOILER. **)
Thinking about the episode, I was reminded of The Game. In that movie, Conrad (Sean Penn) hires CRS (Consumer Recreation Services) to put on a life-like game for his brother Nicholas (Michael Douglas). At the end, when Nicholas asks why his own brother was behind the nightmare he’d just lived, Conrad answers “You were becoming such an asshole.” The ending of Treehouse felt very similar. However, whereas in The Game, Michael Douglas’ reaction was genuine and one sensed he truly wanted to change and for the right reasons, the end of Treehouse does not do the same. At all.
It’s unclear whether Peter truly accepts responsibility for his past behaviors. Has he learned that his treatment of others, specifically women, was unacceptable? Or is he acting like a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge? The evidence supporting the former seems to far outweigh the latter. Though one could argue that it doesn’t matter as Peter will no longer be a jerk to women, fear should not have been the sole driving factor. For the change to last and be meaningful, as it was intended, it should have stemmed from an internal want to truly reform.
It’s unfortunate that Into the Dark isn’t consistently producing solid horror entries. It can’t be blamed on the medium as television has recently shown excellent entries in the horror genre (Channel Zero, Castle Rock). There’s not even a need to drag out storylines over several episodes as each entry is its own story. Add on a running time close to 90 minutes, and you’ve got the right ingredients for success. So, how is it that there are weaker entries than stronger ones? Where does the blame lie? Despite some strong performances and having James Roday involved, Treehouse doesn’t impress. There are bits and pieces that work, but never as a whole. You might be entertained watching it, finding yourself chuckling at times and shaking your head at others. But, halfway through the anthology, I’m still waiting to be wowed by an entry.
Into the Dark is available on Hulu.