Thanks to Mades, this year’s edition of the horror anthology ends on a high note.
Blumhouse Productions has tied their name to projects like Get Out, Happy Death Day, and the 2018 Halloween. With these titles, the studio has cultivated a reputation for low-budget horror that’s freaky, but also doesn’t sacrifice solid storytelling in the process. But no production company hits nothing but homers. Blumhouse is just as responsible for films like The Darkness, The Gallows, and Incarnate, among other crummy pictures.
Every production company produces its share of duds and Blumhouse is no different. The outfit has taken to sending some of its weaker entries over to Amazon Prime streaming as part of an annual anthology film collection called Welcome to the Blumhouse. The first half of 2021’s four pictures delivered a pair of high-concept socio-politically minded films that aimed to be the next They Live. Unfortunately, they ended up being the next Branded instead.
Did the second half of this year’s version of Welcome to the Blumhouse, which consists of the films The Manor and Madres, manage to improve things? Let’s find out. First, we’ll stop at a retirement home with potentially creepy undertones…
Judith (Barbara Hershey) is a spry 70-year-old woman who loves dancing and playing with her grandkids, but a sudden stroke has thrown a wrench in to her life. She’s being placed in a nursing home, and only her kindhearted grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) will say she doesn’t belong here. Stuck with far less autonomy than she is used to, Judith bonds with some of her fellow residents as she grows increasingly aware that something is askew at the facility. Visions of a nefarious monster creeping over snoozing elderly people and a host of other unusual occurrences convince Judith that there’s something evil afoot.
Just as she becomes enmeshed in this conspiracy, though, Judith is diagnosed by a doctor with early-stage dementia. With this development, writer/director Axelle Carolyn asks the viewer to contemplate whether there is genuinely something supernatural going on The Manor or if it’s all in Judith’s head.
Rather than making things unpredictable, The Manor goes down extremely formulaic routes in its forays into the uncertain.
Drawing horror from the exploitation of the elderly and an abusive care facility is a potent idea. But like the first two installments of Welcome to the Blumhouse 2021, The Manor isn’t content to rely on the horrors of reality to make viewers jump out of their seats. Instead, the strange and sinister things afoot at this nursing home are depicted through over-the-top jump scares accompanied by loud, clanging foley work and a score by Christopher Drake that pumps up the shrieking violins. There isn’t much scary here, just a lot of noise insisting that it’s frightening.
The lack of scares becomes an increasingly large problem as Carolyn begins leaning on Judith’s mental condition to generate ambiguity in the story. Rather than making things unpredictable, The Manor goes down extremely formulaic routes in its forays into the uncertain. Few of the images on-screen or major developments in the script are all that removed from reality, so it’s rarely hard to believe that Judith is lying about a greater conspiracy being at play. Embracing more surreal or melodramatic details would’ve gone a long way to keeping viewers on their toes.
The forgettable nature of The Manor extends to the design of the monster Judith keeps seeing around the nursing home. The beast looks like a slimmed-down version of Liam Neeson’s animated Yew tree from A Monster Calls rather than something born from a nightmare. At least the performers on hand are solid—Hershey and Alexander share an affable rapport in their lowkey scenes together that’s particularly striking. I would’ve much rather watched a feature-length version of one scene they simply play spooky board games than experience all the disposable scares The Manor drums up.
As Gordon Ramsey might say, “Finally, some good food!” After three consecutive installments that failed to land, the last Welcome to the Blumhouse feature of 2021, Madres, sticks the landing. It’s a sociopolitical horror film that doesn’t ditch its weighty aspirations once the scares start.
Madres gets off to a good start by opening with a Joseph Conrad quote about how supernatural monsters aren’t necessary when humanity itself is capable of plenty monstrous behavior on its own. This recognition of life’s all-too-real horrors is something the rest of this year’s Welcome to the Blumhouse would have greatly benefitted from. Once the epigraph’s done with, Madres dives right into the lives of pregnant writer Diana (Arianna Guerra) and her partner Beto (Tenoch Huerta). They’re moving to a new town that isn’t exactly ideal for Diana but could be a great place to raise a family.
What immediately sets Madres apart from the other Welcome to the Blumhouse installments of 2021 is the warm chemistry between Guerra and Huerta.
Not long after the couple starts unloading boxes, though, eerie visions and occurrences begin to plague Diana. Soon, she grows convinced that these events have something to do with the prior owners of their new home. What begins as a haunted house movie gradually metamorphoses into something far more complex and horrifying as Madres’ lead characters begin to unearth the secrets of their seemingly peaceful community
What immediately sets Madres apart from the other Welcome to the Blumhouse installments of 2021 is the warm chemistry between Guerra and Huerta. The duo, each of whom delivers a strong performance individually, convey an authentic spark in their interactions, one that immediately gives their plight some weight. Their performances are matched by Mario Miscione and Marcella Ochoa’s screenplay, which takes the timetime to explore very specifically detailed plights for the individual characters.
Director Ryan Zaragoza is confident enough to let conversation-heavy scenes play out, providing a valuable glimpse into the minds of Madres’ protagonists.
Diana’s struggles to bond with her new neighbors in a largely Spanish-speaking community (she wasn’t raised in a household that spoke that language) are achingly resonant. Meanwhile, Beto’s hesitation over Diana’s concerns about a larger conspiracy plaguing their new home hinge on him thinking she wants to play white savior are also thoughtfully realized. Director Ryan Zaragoza is confident enough to let conversation-heavy scenes play out, providing a valuable glimpse into the minds of Madres’ protagonists.
Indeed, Madres’ biggest shortcoming is its attempts at more traditional horror elements. While later scenes make use of more grounded sources of tension, Madres initially is content to lean on the generic jump scares that have abounded throughout the Welcome to the Blumhouse project. And flashes of genuine visual panache in the movie’s third act unfortunately make the flaws in the worst-looking sequences of Madres (including extended stretches where Diana wanders around dimly lit hospital hallways) particularly apparent.
There are also several cases of extremely clumsy expository dialogue, particularly in an exchange between Beto and the one kid in their new community, that bring the frequently immersive world Zaragoza is weaving to a shrieking halt. It’s a messy and imperfect affair, but Madres packs a punch where it counts, particularly once the specifics of what is happening become clear. The other three pictures in this edition Welcome to the Blumhouse are skippable. Madres is well worth curling up with.
The Manor and Madres are both streaming now on Amazon Prime.