Hulu’s collaboration with Blumhouse had a bumpy first season with only a handful of the twelve episodes standing out, but the idea — monthly features, each tied to a holiday/theme from that month — remains a strong one. Happily, that means Into the Dark is onto a second season and a second chance to deliver a more consistent quality across the next year. To that end, season two’s premiere is quite possibly a series best as Uncanny Annie delivers a fun and creepy time with young adult characters who, wait for it, are actually likable?
It’s Halloween night, and a group of college friends have gathered for a night of drinking, hanging out, and playing board games. They’re honoring the memory of a friend who died a year prior — he was a big fan of game nights — and while it’s a somber occasion they’re having fun in his name anyway. A pile of games are brought up to choose from, and it’s one called Uncanny Annie that they settle on. It seems simple enough, but soon the six friends realize that the game has taken over their reality. Everything outside of the house is gone, their phones don’t work, and events in the game bleed into the world including phantoms, a creepy-ass poltergeist, bloody violence, and more.
The only way out is to finish the game, but will any of them be left alive by the time that happens?
Uncanny Annie isn’t the first horror film to be built on the premise of a haunted/cursed/evil game of some sort, but it sets itself apart from the pack early on in a novel way — all six of its young characters are likable, believable, and distinct from each other. It seems like a no-brainer, but far too often horror films are content dropping assholes and blank slates into the mix knowing that viewers will be happy to see them offed in gruesome ways. Here, though, director Paul Davis and writers Alan Bachelor and James Bachelor give time to their characters before unleashing the Annie’s hellscape.
The six are introduced naturally, and their banter and interactions continue apace with jokes, concern, and friendly chatter. They feel like friends, each with their own traits and histories, and while it’s far from a dense dump of character detail there’s more than enough here to see them as fully realized characters — who we know are in for some real trouble. Our concern elevates the horror of it all, and once the terror reveals itself and characters start dropping viewers are invested.
Both the script and the characters are well aware of the horror genre, and references are sprinkled liberally from Jumanji (it’s kiddie horror!) to Candyman. They’re smart in their responses to it all, and when fear or obstinance takes control it never feels cheap. Each new supernatural reveal works to build a game built on rules and fears, but the core running through it all is a required honesty — with each other, with themselves — that just might be their undoing.
The Into the Dark series is often hampered by budgetary restraints, but the filmmakers do fantastic work here taking full advantage of resources to deliver a well-crafted, visually engaging, and occasionally frightening watch. Solid digital effects work well to create a phantom or two, and while the poltergeist ultimately resembles nothing more than a creepy old perv the combination of performance, editing, and direction make him a chilling presence.
The six relative unknowns all do solid work with their characters, and they make for a compelling but believable little Breakfast Club of varying personalities. Paige McGhee‘s newcomer Grace is a standout with some fun dialogue — her ice breaker with the three guys regarding the statistical probability that one of them is a rapist is funnier than it sounds — and an exciting bravery that we rarely see in these films (especially from the women). Dylan Arnold‘s Michael looks and initially acts like a stereotypical “cool” kid, but you quickly buy into his personality and friendships. The others (Adelaide Kane, Georgie Flores, Jacques Colimon, and Evan Bittencourt) are equally good, and Karlisha Hurley deserves a nod too as the evil Annie. She’s a messed up little “girl.”
These made-for-TV features will never measure up budget-wise to the movies hitting theaters, but they can surpass their bigger competition all the same with sharper writing and more interesting stories. Uncanny Annie does just that, and it deserves a bigger audience than the lesser likes of Oujia (2014) and Truth or Dare (2018) managed in theaters.