In October of 2018, Blumhouse Productions founder Jason Blum caught some well-deserved flack for saying in an interview, “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.” It took The A.V. Club an afternoon to round up the names of 10 women who were perfectly suited to direct a mainstream-minded, modestly budgeted project for the indie horror house. Now two of those names, Gigi Saul Guerrero and Axelle Carolyn, appear on the roster for the second “season” of the studio’s (apparently annual) series of streaming movies, Welcome To The Blumhouse.
On one level, it does seem as if Blum and his studio have taken the critiques to heart. Fourteen months after that interview, Blumhouse’s dubious record of never releasing a horror film from a woman was broken with the theatrical bow of Black Christmas, directed by Sophia Takal. And up to this point the Welcome To The Blumhouse lineup has yet to feature a white male director. But the three post-Black Christmas films Blumhouse was able to get into theaters before the Great Postponement of 2020 were all helmed by white men. So in the wake of a global pandemic, we’re left with a murky middle ground where these directors are being hired but not yet promoted.
Historically, women directors and directors of color have struggled against a paucity of opportunities, and of resources and support when they do get a gig. And in its capacity as a kind of farm league, Welcome To The Blumhouse produces films that are even more modestly budgeted than Blumhouse’s theatrical output. That fact is more obvious watching some of the films in this year’s lineup than others, but a pattern nonetheless emerges: Whether the slim allowance was spent on actors or lights, somewhere a corner had to be cut.
Guerrero leans into her budgetary limitations by amping up the unreality of her film, Bingo Hell (Grade: B-), a sometimes clunky but always bold blend of social satire and delirious style. Her setting, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood called Oak Springs, is obviously a backlot. The set decoration is sparse, and most of the camera budget seems to have gone to neon pink, purple, and green lighting gels. Guerrero has opted to invest her resources in the cast and in the gooey, gloppy, outrageous practical effects.
Legendary Mexican TV actress Adriana Barraza, who scored an Oscar nomination for her turn in Babel, stars as Lupita, an unofficial neighborhood matriarch who’s waging a lonely war against the new bingo hall that mysteriously pops up overnight in one of Oak Springs’ many abandoned storefronts. There, a sinister preacher-type who calls himself Mr. Big (played by Richard Brake, a.k.a. The Night King on Game Of Thrones) is promising easy wins and big paydays, not unlike the checks Oak Springs residents have been accepting from developers hungry for their land. But taking Mr. Big’s money has its consequences. Namely: melting into a steaming puddle of slime.
Guerrero, who often incorporates mother figures into her work, has obvious affection for Lupita, an unconventional horror protagonist who’s more complex than you might expect, given the broad strokes of the project overall. Several other characters float a less pure motivation for her crusade: Is she just upset that her influence in Oak Springs is waning? Bingo Hell has been made with a sweet respect for one’s elders—a surprising running theme in this year’s Welcome To The Blumhouse crop. But the film’s talkier bits, like the earnest scene establishing Lupita’s badass credentials, sit a little awkwardly next to the its more fun elements. At its best, this a is colorful and deranged movie, made in a style that evokes two masters of heightened horror-comedy (and of making the most of a limited budget), Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon.
Gentrification also comes up in the weakest of this year’s batch, Black As Night (Grade: C-). Unfortunately, director Maritte Lee Go doesn’t have much to say about the subject beyond her setting, a New Orleans housing project in danger of demolition. Nor does she add much to vampire mythos, save for the interesting tweak that Black vampires have an advantage over their white counterparts, with the melanin in their skin granting them greater resistance to the sun. But even this idea is presented inconsistently, and the only other compelling plot element is lifted from the Candyman movies. Black As Night is assembled in an uninspired YA style that only accentuates the weaknesses of its script, which is laden with stilted dialogue and cringeworthy voiceover. Go’s commentary on colorism and centering of a Black final girl (another rare occurrence in horror) both seem earnest. Unlike Guerrero, however, she doesn’t seem ready for the leap to a bigger budget.
The first pair of Welcome To The Blumhouse films, which were released onto Amazon Prime last week, are brash and colorful. The other two, out today, opt for slower burns, utilizing their limited resources differently by bringing atmosphere and cinematography to the forefront.
If nothing else, Madres (Grade: C) is ambitious. The most serious-minded of the four films, Ryan Zaragoza’s period horror-drama follows Los Angeles journalist Diana (Ariana Guerra) and her farm manager husband Beto (Tenoch Huerta) to a small town in central California in the mid-’70s. There, Diana uncovers evidence that the pesticides being sprayed on crops at Beto’s work are negatively affecting the fertility of Mexican women in the county. Or is there something more sinister going on? Maybe something that blends Get Out-style racial commentary with pregnancy/gaslighting horror à la the recent False Positive?
Zaragoza and his crew obviously took great care with the period setting, and they did a fine job considering the limited budget. The director also plays with stylistic flourishes, using split screen to inventively punch up a scene of Diana digging through old medical records. But the film also contains sloppy mistakes that are difficult to overlook, and its timeline winds up confused (and confusing) as a result. Didactic in its approach to the material—which, to be clear, is absolutely horrifying and very real—Madres has some good ideas, but it fails to see the structural forest for the sumptuously photographed trees.
Like Madres, The Manor (Grade: C+) prioritizes lighting. And like Bingo Hell, it knows the power of a strong lead who also happens to be old enough to get junk mail from the AARP. In this case, that’s genre legend Barbara Hershey. She stars as Judith, a former professional dancer who voluntarily checks herself into an old folks’ home after suffering a stroke at her 70th birthday party. Here at “the manor,” she begins misplacing things, forgetting where she is, and, eventually, seeing a monster sucking the life out of her fellow residents while they sleep. No one believes her, of course, thanks to gaslighting doctors who ply her family with trumped-up dementia diagnoses. (It’s interesting to note that three out of these four films by underrepresented filmmakers share the common thread of protagonists who must struggle alone when no one will listen to what they have to say.)
Hershey is an old pro, and sells her role quite convincingly, even though the film doesn’t have the stylistic bravado to fully immerse us in Judith’s paranoid, confused mental state. But too much is told rather than shown in The Manor, whose ominous atmosphere can’t entirely compensate for its dearth of suspense. Still, director Axelle Carolyn has the technical chops for a big-screen production. Let’s just hope her inevitable level up comes with a bigger creature budget and a little more time for script development.
As with most of the Welcome To The Blumhouse movies, The Manor has flaws that could probably be attributed to scant resources and a quick turnaround time. This annual streaming package remains a sign of progress for the studio—an incubator for new, underrepresented talent. But as the series continues and the more inspired entries rise to the top, it will once again be up to Blum to make sure TV screens don’t become glass ceilings.