Dir: Gigi Saul Guerrero. Starring: L Scott Caldwell, Adriana Barraza, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Richard Brake. 15, 130 mins.
I’ve grown to respect Blumhouse’s scattershot approach to film production. It’s not that I’m desperate to watch invisible hands drag someone around by the hair for the hundredth time as it churns out countless sequels to The Purge and Paranormal Activity, quality be damned. But when Blumhouse finds talented filmmakers, it nurtures them, having helped thrust Jordan Peele, James Wan and Mike Flanagan into the horror mainstream. Its dual-pronged approach to horror means that the risks actually feel like risks, instead of carefully calculated compromises.
Take “Welcome to the Blumhouse”, an anthological horror series that sees a quartet of films released to Amazon Prime each October. The first four – which included The Lie and Evil Eye – debuted last year, and were all centered around the idea of love as both a redemptive and corruptive force. This year’s batch – Bingo Hell, Black as Night, Madres, and The Manor – tackle “institutional horrors and personal phobias”. Admittedly, none of the films so far have been all that spectacular, typically muzzled by both budget and time constraints. But, considering these films are all the work of either first-time directors or still-emerging talent, “Welcome to the Blumhouse” functions rather well as a showcase for the raw imaginations of those still eager to prove themselves.
That’s true of Bingo Hell, certainly, since its flaws are largely forgivable when measured up against the ambitions of its director, Gigi Saul Guerrero – already a part of the Blumhouse stable, having directed several episodes of The Purge TV series. Its central hook isn’t particularly enticing: an old community bingo hall in Oak Springs, a town ravaged by gentrification, is taken over by a Faustian figure (Richard Brake) touting jackpots that are too good to be true. Guerrero’s camera stumbles up close to his features, as the shadows carve out his cheekbones and transform him into a leering, cruel-mouthed skeleton of a man (Brake played the corpse-like Night King on several seasons of Game of Thrones).
Bingo Hell aesthetically shares more in common with the campy, gore-splattered thrills of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series – the volume of blood on screen is equalled only by the pools of viscous, green slime. And, much like that cult property, there’s enough warmth to Guerrero’s script, co-written with Shane McKenzie and Perry Blackshear, to paper over the odd rickety effect or wooden performance.
There are few horror heroines quite like Adriana Barraza’s Lupita, a local abuela who’s become the bastion of her ever-shrinking community. She may have old scars and cracking bones but, unlike Abuela Claudia in this year’s In the Heights, Lupita doesn’t react to the invasion of microbreweries and artisan coffee shops with saintly reserve. She rages, and she rages gloriously, wielding a shotgun and an “I don’t give a f***” attitude.
Guerrero has taken the classic construct of “the deal with the devil” and grounded it in a more familiar reality, where the people of Oak Springs are felled not by greed, but by hopelessness. What choice do they have but to take tainted money, whether or not it’s being offered by a shady bingo hall owner or eager developers? My only hope is that Bingo Hell will open the door for Guerrero to tell these kinds of stories on a larger stage in the future.