Although the Hulu/Blumhouse collaboration Into the Dark has come to an end, I was still holding out on catching up on the episodes I hadn’t seen yet, since it was a tradition between me and Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer to watch them together, and although we have seen each other in person several times this year, as things start to open back up, catching up on movies from an anthology series wasn’t really at the forefront of anyone’s agenda. The series was never very far from my mind, however, as I still managed to mention it several times, whether I was saying that The Unholy or Black Box felt better suited for the series, or including one of its installments at number 13 in my Top Films of 2019 list. However, after getting my little family unit to buy in on the delightful Deadly Games, I didn’t want to push things by nominating another subtitled Christmas horror flick, and there was much objecting to the Creepshow holiday special (you still have one fan in this house, Anna Camp), so we switched from Shudder to Hulu and checked out the 2019 December/Christmas release, A Nasty Piece of Work. Some spoilers! Big ones! But not of everything!
Ted (Kyle Howard) just can’t seem to get into the good graces of his unpleasant and unpleasable boss, Steven (Julian Sands, star of the worst Phantom of the Opera), especially in comparison to and competition with perennially brown-nosing Gavin (Dustin Milligan). After a particularly embarrassing incident in which he put himself in harm’s way to retrieve and deliver Steven’s golf clubs in an ass-kissing attempt, only to be dressed down by Steven for doing so and shown up by Gavin, who mocks him for picking up Steven’s [dumb rich people bullshit] clubs instead of his [also dumb rich people bullshit] ones, Ted destroys the mirror in an executive bathroom with said implements. He’s got impulse issues! Later, following the announcement at the annual office holiday party that there will be no Christmas bonuses that year, Ted sees Steven alone on the office balcony and at first seems to be planning to push the older man to his demise, but instead delivers a clipped corporate platitude of gratitude about what an honor it is to work there, etc. Steven takes this opportunity to invite Ted out to his home for a special Christmas celebration, implying that he plans to share more information about a promotion for Ted then.
When Ted and his wife Tatum (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at the party, they barely have any time to bask in the opulence of the exterior of Steven’s home before they’re nearly run down by Gavin in his Porsche; he and his wife Missy (Natalie Hall) have also been invited. Although Ted spots someone in an upstairs window, Steven’s wife Kiwi (Molly Hagan) insists that the three couples are alone in the house. What follows is an evening of increasing mind games, some of which work and some of which are purely fantastical. Kiwi and Steven go full Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with her withering remarks about his priorital elevation of his business over starting a family as well as his present impotence, while he bons mot about her drinking and other indulgences. Paul Soter of Broken Lizard fame is the credited writer here, but there may as well be a “based upon characters created by Edward Albee” thrown in there for good measure, since we even get a staged shooting, just as in Woolf, although this time when Steven splatters Kiwi’s “brains” all over the marble walls, he immediately turns to Gavin and Ted for recommendations for plans of action to ensure none of them see jail time. It bears mentioning here that, like their husbands, Tatum and Missy are also fundamentally different. Tatum is a down-to-earth woman who works as an insurance mediator and is excited about her snowflake earrings. Missy, for her part, is an astrology-espousing unemployed trophy* wife who shares her husband’s drive for sucking up, although she’s less successful at it; when she tells Kiwi that the older couple’s home has excellent feng shui, Kiwi playfully says that at least designers don’t charge extra for that, but her contemptuous scowl doesn’t disguise just how little she thinks of this input. Missy’s not a complete slouch, however, as when Steven prompts his employees for a solution for what to do about Kiwi’s “corpse,” Gavin is speechless, while Missy manages to kick him into gear, and when Ted reluctantly joins in, Tatum is justifiably horrified.
Things only get stranger from there, and although the film never really got quite as weird in the way that I wanted, it exceeded my expectations in other areas. Kiwi jokes that they got a great deal on the house due to a series of murders that were performed by people living in the walls, which, in combination with Ted’s aformentioned spotting of masked people in an upstairs window and a sequence in which Missy is watched by someone peeping from a hidden room, makes you think that this little Mike Nichols LARP is bound to take a Bad Ronaldian twist any second, but the actual resolution of that particular plot thread is an underwhelming revelation that will have you saying “You’ve got to be Eyes Wide Shitting me!”, which sort of makes sense in context and which I thought was very funny, although no one else laughed. Instead, things take a turn for the even more bizarre. For instance, we learn that Ted’s been lying to Tatum about his Friday night activities, which everyone initially infers to mean that he’s an adulterer. Instead, he’s actually visiting a boy, Daniel, whom Ted paralyzed as the result of a traffic accident that Ted catalyzed by driving in while in an infuriated state following a previous work outburst, years before he and Tatum met. This twists further when Kiwi and Steven reveal that they have Daniel (Nico Greetham) in the house with them and plan to adopt him, and that if Ted doesn’t fulfill Steven’s latest demented command, Daniel will be intentionally subjected to a life of neglect and abuse, but that scene alone contains at least two more additional revelations that push the absurdity to the extreme, but I couldn’t help loving every minute of it.
Essentially, this is a movie in which we get not only such genre-standard classics as:
- Rich old creep creeps on his employee’s wife.
- Drunk rich lady creeps on husband’s employee in front of her husband.
- Chekhov’s guns!
- Rich old creep creeps on his other employee’s wife.
- Intramural voyeurism.
We also get such strange new heights as:
- Bros wearing a suit of armor.
- Angrily smashing delicate face masks.
- Drunk rich lady threatens to kill herself by tying her scarf to a life-sized poolside statue and pushing it in.
- Schrödinger’s ammunition!
- A truly outstanding amount of gaslighting and preparation.
Contemporary criticism of the movie from closer to its release largely focused on the film’s lack of discussion of class friction. While that’s a valid critique, I suppose, most of them cite that there’s little discussion of the vast differences in wealth between Steven and his employees, and I’m not really sure that I agree, especially because my biggest problem with the film’s economic commentary lies in what it doesn’t talk about, rather than what it does. Essentially, I have the same complaint that I’ve had about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for years: the money problems that Clark Griswold faces are not relatable to me, as he has a large and lovely home, no trouble providing for his family, and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of losing his job if he takes a truly staggering amount of vacation time. Clark just wants a Christmas bonus so that he can get a swimming pool, and because he assumed he would be getting it, he made plans for it without making sure funding was secure; Christmas Vacation requires Cousin Eddy to show up and good-naturedly antagonize Clark because otherwise the only conflict is the result of Clark’s bad decision. Likewise, we never really get a very good explanation of why Ted and Tatum need this bonus so much. Ted’s so angry about being shown up by Gavin in one scene that he destroys a very expensive bathroom, but the fact that he, like Clark Griswold, has so much riding in a bonus, makes him feel like an artifact from a different era.
Clark Griswold is unrelatable because, in the 1980s, a middle class chucklenut was living the American Dream. In a 2021 where everything is worse, Ted’s desperation for a bonus, when he seems to be doing better than a lot of people, is a premise that is alienating in just how out of touch it is. One of the strengths of Into the Dark is the way that it streamlines its storytelling, and this installment (like most) takes place almost entirely in one location (Steven and Kiwi’s house), other than a couple of bookend office sequences and an interior dialogue scene in Ted and Tatum’s car. They don’t openly talk about their financial straits on that drive; they just talk about the long hours that Ted has been putting in, and because of the budget constraints that force these smooth-running narratives we see nothing of their home and the life they lead therein. There’s no sense that Ted feels distant from his wife or that she feels a particularly sharp loneliness because of their long hours apart. Of the two, it’s Gavin who’s having money problems because he’s leveraged his credit to create a facade of wealth to impress Steven, while Tatum and Ted seem to be… fine. Only 12% of employers provided bonuses in 2020, with that number up to 23% in 2021, and while that’s self-reporting from businesses, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data from 2019 backs this up, with year-end/holiday bonuses ranging from 6-15% depending on the industry and type of bonus. I happen to be fortunate enough to work a day job where I usually get a bonus at the end of the year, but it’s not every year and I know better than to count on getting it in order to maintain financial stability (and all of them added together for the past 6 years still wouldn’t get me a swimming pool), and most people don’t at all. I certainly never got one from working in the public sector as a teacher or in academic support, and the only bonus I ever got while working retail was a frozen turkey. Hell, if we’re going to crib from Albee and Harold Ramis, why not bring old Dickens into this and give Ted and Tatum a son who needs an expensive treatment, or maybe one of them has an ill parent who needs full time care. Even being behind on a mortgage payment because of a surprise short term medical emergency would add a little bit more urgency to the proceedings.
That same need for an aerodynamic production process and quick and easy cash returns on investment that are a hallmark of even the best Blumhouse releases is great, because they’re the only company giving any real money to small-scale productions, but those pursestrings are tight when it comes to locations. Usually where Dark succeeds or fails is in the performance and the style. Director Charles Hood made only two features prior to this, and if you don’t recognize the names of the TV shows he’s directed episodes of, I don’t either. Cinematographer James Kniest, however, is a frequent Mike Flanagan collaborator, and that shows in the shot choices and composition here, elevating this episode of the anthology above some of its less ambitious peers. Milligan is known more for his comedy roles, and while he’s good at playing dim-witted here as he did on Dirk Gently, there’s a talent in the way that he can deliver a serious scene, as he does here as Gavin while Steven plays back unkind things that Gavin said about Missy in front of her, then effortlessly and seamlessly transition right back to childlike wonder. Molly Hagan is the real MVP here, however. Hagan’s an actress who has made a single appearance in virtually every television show produced between 1992 and 2015. Scarecrow and Mrs. King? Yes! NCIS: New Orleans? Of course! The Golden Girls? You bet! Chicago Hope? Uh- huh. Six Feet Under? Well, obviously! Numb3rs, Monk, JAG, and Friends? Yes, yes, yes, and duh. But here she really gets to be Elizabeth Taylor, and she does it with style and aplomb.
So yes, A Nasty Piece of Work is more than the sum of its parts. If you happen to have Hulu and want to have a little fun with a horror-adjacent Christmas special, take another journey into the dark.
* The film does seem to pretend that Sarafyan isn’t a beautiful woman, and later in the narrative Missy calls her “podunk,” but the rest of the movie doesn’t really sell that, other than a moment wherein Kiwi compliments her boots and Tatum talks about getting them on sale, to which Kiwi gently chastises her that rich people don’t brag about that sort of thing.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond