Jason Blum, CEO and eponym of Blumhouse Productions, in turn the eponym of the Amazon anthological project Welcome to the Blumhouse, described the four-film horror series’ 2020 kickoff as “the product of underrepresented filmmakers.” If the studio’s audience is diverse, Blum reasoned, then its stable of directors should be too. So he hired Veena Sud, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., Elan Dassani & Rajeev Dassani, and Zu Quirke to make movies about “family and love as redemptive or destructive forces.” If the fruits of their labors—The Lie, Black Box, Evil Eye and Nocturne—collided with consistency problems endemic to the anthology form, the enterprise nonetheless proved successful enough to justify a part two.
Like part one, Welcome to the Blumhouse ‘21 is framed around a unifying theme, this time “institutional horrors and personal phobias.” The front-facing monsters—demons, vampires, ghosts and creepy tree-things—are secondary to the true monster: Discrimination as manifested through gentrification, displacement, elder neglect and other real-life human rights abuses. Horror throughout history has always reflected contemporary cultural fears baked into fears of malevolent supernatural entities, but Welcome to the Blumhouse makes subtext into text. There’s never confusion over which specific subject the individual films are about, and as a result they each come perilously close to talking at the audience instead of with them.
In Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Bingo Hell, Lupita (Adriana Barraza), the salty resident matriarch of a small-town community slowly flipping over into a hipster paradise, rallies her friends and neighbors against the glitzy new bingo hall installed by the devilish Mr. Big (Richard Brake); in Maritte Lee Go’s Black as Night, shy teen Shawna (Asjha Cooper) discovers that vampires are feeding on and turning New Orleans’ homeless into a bloodthirsty army; in Ryan Zaragoza’s Madres, writer and first time expecting mother Diana (Ariana Guera) uncovers a curse plaguing the California farmland she and her husband, Beto (Tenoch Huerta), have just moved to; and in Axelle Carolyn’s The Manor, former dancer Judith (Barbara Hershey) checks into a nursing home after a recent stroke and finds that something wicked lurks in its halls preying on residents.
Sub-motifs surface across the quartet—colorism, for instance, plays a part in Black as Night as well as Madres—but the driving theme for each is announced early and loudly. Bingo Hell considers the effects of America’s ever-gentrifying landscape through gambling’s lurid temptations, framing beneficiaries as winners and everyone else as losers. Black as Night examines Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath through contemporary and historical lenses, linking the deracination of non-white citizens from their neighborhoods to America’s original sin—slavery. Madres draws on Madrigal v. Quilligan, a federal class action lawsuit over the forced sterilization of Latina women without consent, for its material. The Manor spares a thought for our grandparents in care facilities, where they’re supposed to receive care they can’t get at home but end up exposed to maltreatment.
“Institutional horrors and personal phobias” sounds nice on a press release, but it’s a pretty way of saying that Welcome to the Blumhouse 2.0 focuses on marginalized characters. Even Judith, who at least bears the appearance of wealth and certainly has a good deal more privilege than the protagonists in the other films, is shunted to the side of society, not so much by her family but by her custodians; her daughter Barbara (Katie A. Keane) isn’t heartless but simply doesn’t have the energy to look after her mom, while her grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) tries to be there for her as much as he can from the outside. Still, Judith is an island, even when she makes nice with the popular clique in the home. When she receives nighttime visitations from a leering bark-skinned monster, the nurses immediately assume she’s losing her marbles. They ignore her pleas. As is the tradition in horror, Judith is left to fight her fight alone.
In this we find the true heart of the series: Yes, it’s about marginalization, but it’s more specifically about the human need to be heard. Nobody listens to the protagonists in these movies at first, if at all. They’re ignored. Dismissed. In a few cases, they’re gaslit. Judith is medicated for her presumed night terrors, as if she’s crazy and not witness to a monstrosity’s incursions into her own room; Diana’s theories about a new pesticide used by local farmhands (that it might be hazardous for their health) are written off as paranoia by everyone, including Beto. Shawna gets off comparatively easy: Pedro (Fabrizio Guido), her best friend, and Chris (Mason Beauchamp), her studly crush, both get on board the vampire-hunting train with little cajoling. Sometimes, folks just wish they had a monster to blame the ills of their lives on.
Bingo Hell pays off this thread best of all. It isn’t until the end that Lupita gets her companions’ attentions, and not because they think she’s making mountains out of molehills per se: Mr. Big enchants them with thousand dollar, hundred thousand dollar, million dollar pots every evening, holding them in a trance they can’t break out of. They’re so firmly in his thrall that the winners off themselves as if under hypnosis no sooner than they collect their prizes. Lupita must literally destroy the system that has them stupored with the business end of a shotgun; then, and only then, do the rest of Oak Springs’ people turn against Mr. Big with a good ol’ fashioned group beatdown. It’s a pleasure to watch, not least because Brake is so preternaturally talented at malicious facial contortions that Guerrero doesn’t need to make him up much if at all.
That listening component does more to link these films than the studio’s original brief. Listening gives Guerrero, Go, Zaragoza and Carolyn a way to laser-focus their stories and keep them distinct, but of a piece with one another. But just as this edition of Welcome to the Blumhouse has a unifying theme, it also has a unifying flaw: All of these movies hurry. Bingo Night trips over its feet the least thanks to small stakes and a small backdrop, and even so, the film feels like it could have been condensed into a 40-minute episode of Tales from the Crypt. The rest could be, too, which probably would’ve barred them from arriving at happier endings that disrupt their established status quos: The bad guys would win, whether Mr. Big, “vampire supremacist” preacher Babineaux (Keith David), the tree-thing, or the forces driving the “curse” afflicting the farmers. Maybe bummer climaxes are unwelcome; marginalized Americans deserve a “W” in the fight to maintain their basic human dignity when the institutions overshadowing them work so hard to deny it.
But these struggles don’t benefit from slim running times: The Manor clocks in at about an hour and a half, and the rest at ten minutes less. For the most part, they’d all benefit either from condensing or expansion. Uniformity of duration implies uniformity of intent and experience, which clangs against Welcome to the Blumhouse’s stated purpose. What these movies have in common is straightforward: Systemic wrongs endure because the people most impacted are ignored. But the systemic wrongs in Bingo Hell, Black as Night, Madres and The Manor aren’t the same. They encompass separate threads of American history and culture. Stuffing them into boxes with more or less the same dimensions muffles them. If Blum means to produce a new Welcome to the Blumhouse series each year, he should think about giving the next quartet of voices the space to tell their stories the way they need to be told.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.