Culture Shock, the latest installment of Blumhouse’s Into The Dark anthology on Hulu, feels like it was pulled straight out of the Purge universe. Directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero, who co-wrote the script with James Benson and Efrén Hernández, the film tells a harrowing border-crossing story about a pregnant woman named Marisol (Martha Higareda), who’s determined to sneak into the U.S. from Mexico despite one tragically failed earlier attempt. After she’s captured by an unknown collective, Marisol ends up in the idyllic American town of Cape Joy, but this victory garden come to life is just a facade for a sinister behind-the-scenes operation where men, women, and children are tied up, tube fed, and treated worse than lab rats.
“When I read this script, it didn’t quite say what America felt like,” says Guerrero, who drew inspiration for the uncanny Cape Joy from World War II propaganda materials that advertised American exceptionalism. “These posters are so creepy, and I was like, ‘This is an opportunity to do Pleasantville gone wrong.’”
Vulture spoke to Guerrero, a 29-year-old actress, writer, and filmmaker who runs her own Vancouver-based horror production company called Luchagore, just before the Independence Day release of Culture Shock. She told us why she wants to see more outright horror stories about risking your life to emigrate, the importance of casting Mexican actors to tell a Mexican story, and how she worked an “awesome vengeance” plot into the film.
How long have you had this particular story in your head?
I’ve been trying to tap into a border-crossing story since I was 21. I made a short film called El Gigante in 2014. But it felt like Culture Shock was the right one. Not just for its timeliness, but I really related to it in a much more personal way. As an immigrant myself, I understand the struggle for anybody that emigrates to another country. It’s really hard. And from a Hispanic point of view, we don’t get that many opportunities, but I think we’re slowly in a wave of new Latin horror filmmakers that I feel very lucky to be part of.
And Mexico has an incredible tradition of horror cinema.
We have so much in our folklore, our legends. We’re very spiritual people, and it’s something I never want to lose. When we moved from Mexico to Canada, my parents would always say, “When you walk back in this house, you speak Spanish. You’re in your own little Mexico.” It’s because of that I felt it’s my responsibility to share as much of where I come from as possible. Maybe in a more twisted, crazy way!
Since making El Gigante five years ago, how did your perspective change on the border-crossing story you wanted to tell?
At that time for El Gigante, I was like, “What is my voice in the genre? Okay, I’m a Tex-Mex grindhouse chica! I’m gonna go crazy! Here’s a really fun border-crossing story with Mexican cannibals! Let’s just give fans some fun without making the biggest message.” But as I grew up and matured and really finessed my voice as a storyteller, the moment I read the Culture Shock script, I had a lot of heart and emotion, and I had a lot of anger, too. I really am heartbroken. I wanted to showcase every inch of what I’m feeling. We are heartbroken and sad every day. We can barely watch the full hour news. I can’t.
I was really interested in how the Mexican national anthem is used in this movie. The first time we hear it, these very brutal coyotes are using it to taunt a Central American boy. But later in the film, Marisol uses it as a rallying cry to bring her fellow prisoners together. What was the intention behind that switch?
The first line in the national anthem is basically translated to, “Mexicans at the cry of war, at the cry of unity.” In the first draft of the script, I was like, “We’ve gotta bring this again. We’ve got to unify everybody.”
This is a bilingual movie. Does your directing style change when you are able to speak Spanish with a cast instead of English?
It was crazy, because I directed almost everything I’ve ever made in English. This movie I was directing in both languages and it was amazing. Everybody felt so part of this Culture Shock world, and I think that happened because I was very, very intense about making every actor I cast of Mexican descent — not just Hispanic. Mexican. It just felt organic to talk in Spanish with a Mexican dialect, to joke and communicate like that. Every actor brought their own little authenticity to it, and I didn’t have to worry, like, “Hey, Mexicans do this. Hey, Mexicans don’t do that.” One of the things I would do at the production office is print out a bunch of Mexican “ghetto words of the day” so everyone could learn a new swear word, or just a new word, to get everyone into it.
How do you think your perspective, being Mexican-Canadian, factored into making this movie about the myth of the American Dream?
Since I was a little kid, my mom and dad have been trying to find what is the better life. We even tried living in L.A. when I was in kindergarten, but we went back to Mexico. So, I understand how hard it can be to find that happiness, and it’s just unfortunate I’m watching what’s going on from far away. It’s gotten worse, sure, but we’ve been seeing this for a long time. I do have a lot of family that we’ve lost along the way, because they tried to cross illegally. Friends of friends have crossed illegally; a couple of the actors have family who have crossed illegally or gone through some danger. Other than Sin Nombre, I have yet to see a movie that showcases the rawness and the brutality of it, or the desperation people must have in order to do something so dangerous.
I really liked the ending of the movie. In that final moment after Marisol escapes and chooses to go back to Mexico while everyone else goes north, the movie doesn’t take a position on which is the right choice.
Exactly. When I first read the script, actually nobody goes back. There was no escape. It was just, “This is the way it is, and it has to be accepted.” As a Mexican, I was like, “Fuck no, man!” I told the studio, “The people we’re seeing out there don’t have that choice, and God they wish they did.”
I brought that choice because I have felt like that sometimes with my family. When it was so hard in Canada, we were like, “Do we go back?” You can’t, sometimes, but for Marisol that just felt right. That ending was the thing I was dreaming about. Let’s have the fireworks on the [United States] side where there’s a celebration of freedom, but Marisol is celebrating her own freedom separately. That’s the message: Everybody has their right to their own independence.
Were you able to make a movie you felt was authentically Mexican, without having to explain cultural touchpoints for non-Latinx viewers?
I just felt, “I’m gonna do some subtle things that just Mexicans are gonna get.” We can’t spoon feed people over and over, because then people are not going to read subtitles. People are not going to want foreign-language films. I don’t like to use it very much, but people use the term “whitewashing,” and what’s the point? You’re not saying how you feel inside. Although a lot of my shorts are in English, El Gigante is all in Spanish and that was still the hardest film to get people to watch, but I’m glad these things are changing. For Culture Shock, I was able to be like, “You know what? I’m gonna give you guys 100 percent me.”
Adding sexual violence to a story immediately adds a heaviness to it, because it’s such a dark kind of violation. At the start of the movie Marisol is raped during her first border-crossing attempt, which is how she becomes pregnant. Why was that important to you to include?
[Marisol’s attacker] Oscar didn’t exist when I first read it. Marisol was just pregnant. She just wants to have a better life, but I don’t want the movie to have this division of bad America, good Mexico. It’s raw. It’s gritty, and this is why she wants to leave, but there are hints of beauty with the culture and the religion and the language and the food, you know? My grandma would always tell us, “The devil walks among us no matter where you go.” I felt, “What if Marisol went through that?”
To me, it also demonstrated how intense the desperation can be for some crossers, if they’re willing to embark on this harrowing journey in spite of the dangers, and in spite of even being extremely pregnant.
That’s a level of desperation people have yet to understand unless you are in that situation. People do that. So, it felt right to give her a further layer than just, “I need a better life.” Then of course, if you want to talk horror, I was like, “This is an opportunity for an awesome vengeance ending!” That was the last stuff we shot. And oh, honey, I felt like I let it all out!
I’m going to tell you a little secret: At first in the script, she sees Oscar in the bed and she just presses a couple buttons on the iPad and kills him. I was like, “We’re gonna strangle the shit out of this guy!” It was a last-minute decision, but I wanted to destroy this guy. I need blood, guys! I need to kill people! The visual of Marisol carrying her baby and killing him was too cool.