Hold On! Gimme A Sec

Welcome to the Blumhouse makes a strong pitch for new voices in horror

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For the Halloween season a year ago, horror studio Blumhouse Productions launched a new movie anthology series called Welcome to the Blumhouse on Amazon Prime, releasing four suspense films under the Welcome to the Blumhouse banner. That first set of “Welcome” movies mostly skirted the outer edges of the horror genre, much like the eclectic fare Blumhouse releases in theatres — and unlike the company’s previous fright-focused anthology series, Into the Dark. Although the titles of Black Box, Evil Eye, The Lie, and Nocturne were eerily similar, they were all psychological thrillers. They had supernatural overtones, but they weren’t horror or slasher movies.

The second wave of Welcome to the Blumhouse films has arrived, with Bingo Hell and Black As Night premiering on Amazon on October 1st and Madres and The Manor on October 8th, respectively. All four of these new films are unmistakably horror. They include demons, vampires, ghosts, and bodies piling up one by one… all of the standard horror tropes. Apart from the Blumhouse backing, what sets these films apart from the hundreds of other scary movies that come out each year are their protagonists, who, for the most part, aren’t your typical scream queens and dopey teenagers.

Adriana Barraza, for example, plays Lupita, a senior citizen living in a working-class neighborhood that is gradually being absorbed by hipster hangouts in Bingo Hell. When a smirking jerk named “Mr. Big” (Richard Brake) opens a bingo parlor with too-good-to-be-true payouts, gentrification accelerates. Mr. Big’s price for granting wishes turns out to be the homes, lives, and souls of his clients. Only Lupita, the obstinate knucklehead, and her elderly friends have a chance against him.

Judith (Barbara Hershey), a newly admitted nursing-home resident who starts seeing signs of a demonic presence around her otherwise pleasant and upscale assisted-living facility, is also featured in The Manor. Judith has a hard time convincing her family, her nurses, or her new neighbors that there’s something dangerous lurking around because she recently had a stroke and is at an age when dementia can set in.

Asjha Cooper, Frabrizio Guido and Mason Beauchamp explore a dark room with flashlights in Black As Night
Black As Night

Madres’ heroine has disturbing visions that may or may not be significant. The film stars Ariana Guerra as Diana, the heavily pregnant Mexican-American wife of migrant worker Beto, and is set in rural California in the 1970s (Tenoch Huerta). When Diana starts having premonitory flashes of impending violence — or perhaps psychic impressions of something horrible that happened in the past — she struggles to find anyone to trust as a newcomer to the community.

Asjha Cooper plays Shawna, a 15-year-old Black New Orleans native who discovers that a vampire cult has been preying on the homeless and drug addicts, including her own mother. Shawna learns about her city’s often tragic history as she rallies her friends to go after the bloodsuckers. She also learns about the many ways the city’s entitled classes have exploited or neglected the poor.

It’s not unusual to see women in the lead roles in four mostly unrelated horror films. Female protagonists have long dominated the genre, sometimes for progressive reasons (because it’s easier to root for someone who is misunderstood by her peers and enemies), and sometimes for regressive reasons (because it’s easier to root for someone who is misunderstood by her peers and enemies). (It’s easy to objectify a scared, vulnerable woman in tattered clothing.)

However, these four women — two of whom are elderly, two of whom are Latina, one of whom is Black, and one of whom is pregnant — have little in common with the types of movie heroines who are typically stalked by masked serial killers at summer camps. And their identities are crucial to understanding what their stories are about. Both the elderly Lupita in Bingo Hell and the adolescent Shawna in Black As Night are fighting forces that are literally and metaphorically draining their communities’ lifeblood. Judith and Diana, both new to their new homes, are just desperate to be heard instead of being treated as if their physical conditions are causing them to lose their minds. It’s easy to see why Blumhouse/Amazon has grouped these four movies the way they have. Each twosome serves well as a thematically linked double feature.

It’d be a stretch to call these four films essential viewing for cinephiles or horror fans, as it was with the first Welcome to the Blumhouse set. All four would have worked just as well in an anthology series as hourlong episodes. While it’s exciting to see new faces and characters fighting evil, the plots of these films are overly familiar and predictable. Only The Manor, written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, a Belgian filmmaker who has worked as a film critic and actor, as well as writing and directing horror-themed television series, feels like it would have worked better as a theatrical release or a Midnight Madness title as a TV Movie.

Ariana Guerra and Tenoch Huerta look appalled at a cardboard box in Madres
Madres

The other films, on the other hand, are not a waste of time for genre fans. Each one has its own distinct flavor. For such a gory film, Bingo Hell (directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero, who also co-wrote the script with Shane McKenzie and Perry Blackshear) has an unusually light tone. It feels more like a film about the daily lives of opinionated senior citizens than a tale about a seductive and destructive devil at times. Black As Night (directed by Maritte Lee Go from a Sherman Payne script) doesn’t hold back when it comes to its high-school-movie elements, allowing Shawna to express her adolescent desires and insecurities. Madres (directed by Ryan Zaragoza from a Marcella Ochoa and Mario Miscione script) makes great use of its ’70s setting, capturing a time that was spiritually unsettled and fraught with paranoia.

If nothing else, the Welcome to the Blumhouse movies from 2021 make a strong case for introducing new voices to the horror genre. Even if the material isn’t all that original — and even if the stories fall flat — the characters and the worlds they inhabit in these four films don’t look or sound like every other spooky B-movie. These films serve as a reminder that, even if big-screen horror appears to be plateauing, there are still plenty of places to be scared — and plenty of reasons to be scared.

Bingo Hell, Black As Night, Madres,and The Manor are all now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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