The first two entries in the newest Welcome to the Blumhouse collection are a flawed pair of scary films.
Welcome to Welcome to the Blumhouse! This annual anthology collection of four new horror films from Get Out producers Blumhouse Productions, debuting on Amazon streaming, is back after its inaugural run in 2020. Conceptually, this seems like a nifty idea, a way to tackle bold new filmmaking concepts or styles that may not be as broadly accessible as theatrical Blumhouse fare like Fantasy Island. Unfortunately, titles like The Lie made the first iteration of Welcome to the Blumhouse feel like a grab-bag of movies that just weren’t good enough for the big screen.
This year, the four movies comprising the second edition of Welcome to the Blumhouse are all apparently fixated on institutionalized horror. The first two installments that have dropped (the other two films will premiere on October 9) are Bingo Hell and Black as Night, each tackling both a different strain of horror storytelling and a unique form of systemically ingrained injustice. A common trait across the pair of features, unfortunately, is a lack of consistently high-quality filmmaking. Here’s to hoping the next final two entries in this year’s collection wrap things up on a much stronger note.
The residents of the neighborhood of Oak Springs, including Lupita (Adriana Barraza) and her longtime best friends, are dealing with gentrification that keeps erasing the stores and homes they used to know like the back of their hands. Now their local bingo hall has been overtaken by Mr. Big, who covers it in bright neon coloring and promises big cash prizes to anyone who plays. Lupita is immediately suspicious of Mr. Big, and it turns out she has good reason to.
Anyone who wins oodles of money from Mr. Big’s bingo games ends up suffering a grotesque violent fate as they try to live out their wealthy fantasies. Plus, the temptation of all that cash is making everyone in Oak Springs focus on getting rich rather than their neighbors. Gentrification has taken so much from Oak Springs, now Lupita wants to take something back from Mr. Big.
It’s admirable that Bingo Hell writer/director Gigi Saúl Guerrero wants to use a horror movie to comment on gentrification, but the execution of this lofty premise leaves an enormous amount to be desired. Most problematic is the fact that Bingo Hell isn’t very scary. An extended scene where Lupita watches bingo balls slowly slide on her kitchen floor as they spell an ominous message isn’t eerie. It just reminded me of Billy Magnussen slowly sliding a dollar bill across a table in Game Night. That’s not what you want to conjure up in your horror movie.
Guerrero douses much of Bingo Hell in brightly colored lighting and keeps resorting to Dutch angles, but none of these mild visual flourishes liven up a screenplay deficient on scares. Part of the scarcity of the frights comes from the movie’s inability to make the various characters actual people. It’s hard to get on the edge of your seat in suspense when these people are in danger when I couldn’t describe their personalities. Cutting one or two of the didactic speeches laying out the story’s central themes in favor of just hangout scenes to flesh out Lupita and her colleagues, would have done wonders for the story.
Bingo Hell already comes up short in scares and characters, so it’s also a pity that the film’s a mess in its sociopolitical commentary too. Most notably, having the source of gentrification in the film comes from a supernatural boogeyman who looks like a knock-off Jackie Earl Haley lets privileged viewers off the hook. The source of gentrification is not sources rooted in reality but a guy whose clearly from another plane of existence.
A strange obsession with depicting poor people getting gruesomely violent demises, including one woman just ripping off chunks of her skin, reduces the victims of gentrification to just being corpses to gawk at by the viewer. At least this part of the production makes sense in terms of explaining why Bingo Hell ended up on Amazon. I’m sure Jeff Bezos loves watching the poor suffer grisly ends. Everyone else, though, should find other sources for either horror or substantive roles played by Adriana Barraza.
BLACK AS NIGHT
Shawna (Asjha Cooper) is a teenager living in New Orleans, ready to spend her summer vacation relaxing when she isn’t helping out her troubled mom. But while walking home from a party one night, Shawna is attacked by a pack of homeless vampires. Soon after, Shawna discovers that her mother has also had a fateful encounter with these supernatural beings. Now determined to stop this menace plaguing the local homeless population, Shawna uncovers a conspiracy that only she and her young pals can hope to stop.
Of the two initial installments of 2021’s iteration of Welcome to Blumhouse, Black as Night is by far the superior title. Grounding the proceedings in the specific turmoil facing marginalized communities in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina already lends it a specificity that Bingo Hell sorely lacks. Director Maritte Lee Go and screenwriter Sherman Payne also fare decently in remembering the sociopolitical commentary even as the plot embraces more and more heightened material connected to that whole vampire element.
Plus, Black as Night’s best moments sees the production committing 100% to some truly bonkers material, including an expository monologue involving a character somberly intoning the phrase “vampire supremacist.” Much of the film plays things in a formulaic manner, but whenever it opts to execute the absurd with a totally straight face, it becomes an enjoyable watch. The best instances of this come from an all-too-brief turn from Keith David, whose conviction in his performance lends tangible gravity to an immortal antagonist.
Unfortunately, Black as Night’s best moments can’t compensate for some glaring shortcomings. Though more average than bad, it’s still hampered by critical flaws, like a lack of visual imagination. Not only do the vampires in this film look bog-standard for the genre, but Lee Go demonstrates a frustrating lack of willingness to use backdrops that could only be found in New Orleans. Thematically, this story is rooted in anguish specific to this Louisiana city. Why, then, does the climax take place in a dimly lit tunnel that could’ve been airlifted in from any of the Marvel/Netflix TV shows?
Similarly underwhelming is a barrage of narration from Shawna that doesn’t so much illuminate internal thoughts as beat audiences over the head with what’s going on on-screen. Meanwhile, Payne’s screenplay is way too crowded with protagonists, to the point that a vampire expert lady abruptly drops out to go do SAT studying just before the finale and it doesn’t impact the plot one way or another. Amidst all these figures, Shawna’s story and her motivations get lost in the shuffle. Trimming down the central cast alone would’ve gone a long way to making Black as Night a more effective horror film.
The best parts exude a sense of confidence in mixing together real sociopolitical issues affecting marginalized groups in New Orleans with vampires straight out of Daybreakers. Unfortunately, its weakest parts also show enough sloppiness that it becomes clear why this is debuting on Amazon rather than on the big screen.
Bingo Hell and Black as Night are now available on Amazon Prime.