On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Who Knows Why We Make the Memories We Do?

IMDb search results and the monolithic “critical consensus” can tell you what supposedly should come to mind when any given actor comes up in conversation. But every cinephile knows that for whatever reason performers become permanently linked to specific roles in our minds. It’s an indelible, personal assignment that can be sentimentally meaningful (Robin Williams will always be the “Aladdin” Genie in Disney adults’ hearts) — or inexplicable and circumstantial (humiliating but true, Philip Seymour Hoffman will always be Sandy Lyle from “Along Came Polly” to me).

It wasn’t until I heard news of Julian Sands’ hiking accident, and subsequent disappearance and the discovery of his remains earlier this year, that I appreciated what an impact his performance in “A Nasty Piece of Work” had on the memory I would make of him.

INTO THE DARK, from left: Kyle Howard, Angela Sarafyan, 'A Nasty Piece of Work', (Season 2, Episode 203, aired Dec. 6, 2019). ph: Patrick Wymore / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection
Kyle Howard and Angela Sarafyan in “Into the Dark: A Nasty Piece of Work”©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection

Hulu’s “Into the Dark” anthology is hardly a pop culture mainstay; it’s seemingly little known even to horror fans and the future of the holiday-themed TV movie anthology was publicly doomed by the streaming service a few years back. The screamingly underrated series was a mixed bag, sure, but it also boasted future “Five Nights at Freddy’s” director Emma Tammi, “Saw” franchise screenwriter Marcus Dunstan, and more genre voices helming special seasonal episodes covering everything from Easter to Pet Appreciation Week.

Directed by Charles Hood and written by “Super Troopers” Paul Soter, “A Nasty Piece of Work” is a sharpened-up “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” redux — it knows as much, making fun of “fancy jams” in the first act — starring Kyle Howard as Ted: an overworked corporate underling desperate to get ahead at his terrible job. When Ted and his wife Tatum (Angela Sarayan), along with Ted’s work nemesis Gavin (Dustin Milligan) and his wife Missy (Natalie Hall), are invited to dinner at the boss’ house, Sands’ gloriously unhinged CEO character Steven and Molly Hagan’s lunatic wife, Kiwi, await. They’re delusional and dangerous, with a “Most Dangerous Game”-meets-“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” situation already in motion.

The straight-to-streaming 2019 Christmas special is as chunky as stale fruit cake warmed up and soaked in curdled egg nog, jumping spooky subgenres with reckless abandon and creating a nonsensical experience that’s hard to hold onto — even if it’s not exactly gripping. That disclaimer aside, Sands is absolutely tenacious with his campy antagonist, delivering a performance that feels on par with the satire work on display in something like Rian Johnson’s lauded “Knives Out.”

As we approach the end of the year, now feels as good a time as any to salute the talents we’ve lost. Start your holiday season with Sands’ completely fantastic centerpiece performance in “A Nasty Piece of Work”: a Christmas treat for midnight movie fans that’s an odd but loving tribute to the late actor’s tremendous life. —AF

The Aftermath: Say What You Will About the “Eyes Wide Shut” Guys, But at Least Their Masks Fit Their Faces

As I mentioned in this week’s bonus After Dark Thanksgiving Eve Spectacular, the beauty of the episodic anthology has always been allowing artists to tell short stories that could never stand alone as full-length films. Typically, that’s done over the course of a season of self-contained episodes. But “A Nasty Piece of Work” proves that you can accomplish the same feat by cramming a dozen half-baked movie ideas into 77 minutes and calling it a day. A win for efficiency if there ever was one!

I didn’t know what I was expecting when I turned on “A Nasty Piece of Work” — which now holds the distinct honor of being the first Christmas movie I watched during the 2023 holiday season — but it was not this. I respect our readers too much to claim I enjoyed it or endorse it in any meaningful sense, but I’ll admit that the script’s remarkable tendency to reinvent itself every ten minutes for no real reason ensured that it never lost my attention. How often do you get to watch a quasi-Dickensian Christmas wealth satire, an Albee-esque parlor game gone wrong, an “Eyes Wide Shut” knockoff with masks that were apparently purchased at Spirit Halloween, a girlboss Beat the Men at Their Own Game morality play, and an armored fight with medieval weapons in the same movie? Doing all of those poorly might even be more interesting than doing one of them well would have been, and that’s before you even get into the detailed explanations of the mechanisms powering antique rifles!

INTO THE DARK, Molly Hagan, 'A Nasty Piece of Work', (Season 2, Episode 203, aired Dec. 6, 2019). ph: Lisa Rose / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection
Molly Hagan in “Into the Dark: A Nasty Piece of Work” ©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection

Like so many anthology episodes, there’s also a varied range of acting quality in this one. Julian Sands is a delight, and watching him chew scenery as an amusingly one-dimensional villain went a long way towards keeping me engaged. But watching Kyle Howard’s complete inability to use punctuation as he stumbles through lines like “The only way I win is if I don’t play the game because there is no promotion it’s all just stories and lies and make believe bullshit so you and your psychotic wife can get your rocks off!” was equally entertaining in its own way.

While I haven’t seen any other “Into the Dark” episodes, I imagine I’ll be checking out quite a few more after this. To me, “A Nasty Piece of Work” embodies the “buy the ticket, take the ride” mentality that makes episodic anthologies fun. The occasional asinine twist and incompetent acting performance is the price you pay for narrative variety and the thrill of searching for hidden gems. It’s the television equivalent of a gumball machine that dispenses random prizes — and every midnight movie lover should try their luck by tossing metaphorical coins into those germ-covered mystery boxes from time to time. —CZ

INTO THE DARK, from left: Natalie Hall, Dustin Milligan, 'A Nasty Piece of Work', (Season 2, Episode 203, aired Dec. 6, 2019). ph: Lisa Rose / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection
Natalie Hall and Dustin Milligan in “Into the Dark: A Nasty Piece of Work”©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “A Nasty Piece of Work” on Hulu. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

  • ‘Boardinghouse’ Is the Baffling, VHS-Shot, Pie-Filled Piece of Midnight Movie History You’ve Been Sleeping on
  • Isabella Rossellini Is a Double-Amputee with Beers for Legs in ‘The Saddest Music in the World’
  • ‘A Town Called Panic’: The Best Stop-Motion Movie About Bulk Brick Sales to Ever Emerge from Belgium

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