31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Madres & The Manor

We’ve come to the end of another year of Welcome to the Blumhouse and I’m a little sad it’s already done. I feel like we just got started! With five Fridays in October leading up to Halloween, I wish they had staggered the release of these four movies and not clumped them together…it would only spread the wealth in what turned out to be a much stronger year than 2020. (Click the title for reviews of Black Box, Nocturne, The Lie, and Evil Eye) I sort of understand why Blumhouse would want to keep Friday, October 15th clear…it’s when their sequel to the 2018 Halloween arrives but why not just skip that week? In any event, this final push has the two best releases and while I felt overall the four films were stronger than last year, the two below are the ones you should consider first with the slight edge going to The Manor for getting the job done.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Expecting their first child, a Mexican-American couple move to a migrant farming community in 1970’s California where strange symptoms and terrifying visions threaten their new family.

Stars: Ariana Guerra, Tenoch Huerta, Elpidia Carrillo, Kerry Cahill, Jennifer Patino, Rachel Whitman Groves, Ashleigh Lewis

Director: Ryan Zaragoza

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If the third time is truly the charm, then Madres should be the star attraction in this cycle of Welcome to the Blumhouse.  And y’know what?  From the looks of it so far (at the time of this writing, I hadn’t yet seen the fourth entry, The Manor) it most definitely is.  While last week held the elders with an attitude fighting against a demon battling them through gameplay in Bingo Hell and a New Orleans teen staking vampires in her recovering community in Black as Night, I had a feeling this second and final week would hold the more prestigious edge just by the look of the marketing materials.  Continuing to raise the bar like its previous week predecessors, Madres embraces the mission to highlight underrepresented voices in minority communities and crafts a throwback bit of paranoid domestic horror which aims more for the heart and head than just the gut.

Set in 1977, Mario Miscione and Marcella Ochoa’s screenplay is low-key and takes its time to slowly introduce both the characters and the creeping menace into their lives as a young couple moves from the big city to a small farming community in California.  In the city, their lives were cramped and futures not totally clear but with the move there is a chance to own a larger home to start a family and truly build a life, embracing what was then celebrated as the American Dream.  Diana (Ariana Guerra) and Beto (Tenoch Huerta, The Forever Purge) are already ahead of the game in the family department, with Diana far along in her pregnancy and looking forward to giving birth within the next few months.

Not long after they arrive, the warning signs start to pop up that they’re living in a house with secrets and the history of the previous tenant isn’t something the townspeople are eager to discuss.  They have their own problems anyway, with several illnesses being reported supposedly linked to a curse that has haunted the area from a woman with a soul that is not at rest.  Of course, it’s the same woman that wants to reach out to Diana but…why?  That’s the mystery Diana must solve, all while trying to bridge the gap between her culture and learning her husband’s.  While he has immigrated directly from Mexico and speaks the language, she grew up in a family that believed in assimilating as a way of protection.

Miscione and Ochoa work with director Ryan Zaragoza to give the film a distinct period setting, and Zaragoza taps the production side to keep everything appropriate for that era but also timeless as well.  The strange things that happen (this was inspired by true events) could still happen now and while there are ghostly goings on that tingle your spine, Zaragoza seems interested in making your moral conscience itch more than sending a shiver through your bones.  That can often be scary in and of itself, even during the later moments when Madres gives way to more conventional plot mechanics.  Up until then, though, there’s a ship-shape film going on with taut storytelling and performances that are far better than we’ve been accustomed to in what could be considered a B-Movie.  Guerra is the standout star and for good reason.  With charisma and chemistry with the equally charming Huerta, they make a dynamic duo, bonding together as a team to figure out what’s going on around them.  No Rosemary’s Baby like double crosses going on here…though there is plenty gaslighting going on, I’m just not saying who’s zoomin’ whom.

While watching these movies I also can’t help but wonder if Blumhouse is auditioning directors for bigger projects and Zaragoza is far and away the strongest candidate so far to be given a larger budget and production to work on.  On paper, Madres might not have had quite the impact it has when you see it up on its feet and it’s a tribute to Zaragoza assembling the right team in front of and behind the camera that it delivers the goods and then some. Carrying the horror of the film even further, the dark coda brings reality in, leaving you with a takeaway meant to gnaw at your nerves more than anything you’ve seen so far.

The Facts:

Synopsis: After suffering a stroke, Judith moves into a historic nursing home, where she begins to suspect something supernatural is preying on the residents.

Stars: Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Nicholas Alexander, Stacey Travis, Fran Bennett, Katie A. Keane,  Jill Larson

Director: Axelle Carolyn

Rated: NR

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Whelp, I guess I’m all about the oft-used phrases today because Welcome to the Blumhouse saved the best for last, at least in the order that I was given to watch them.  The Manor is the fourth and final entry of the 2021 titles and not only is it the one that has the most polish (in a far above average crop to begin with) but the acting is top-notch with plot and pacing also working well in its favor.  Like the rest of the movies released under the banner up until now, it’s just under the mark of what would be considered something that would be released theatrically but is perfect for a direct to streaming event of this nature.  While it doesn’t confront its underlying topics (ageism, families abandoning their loved ones into the care of others) as fervently as the others, it aims for more of an entertaining balance of real-life horror with the things that go bump in the night.

Recently celebrating her 70th birthday, former dancer and widow Judith (Oscar-nominee Barbara Hershey, Insidious) suffers a stroke and, not wanting to burden her own widowed daughter and teenage grandson who she lives with, makes the decision to enter a nursing home.  Some viewer adjustment is required at the outset to conceptualize how a then-nearly 70-year-old can drop everything in her life to care for her daughter but when the roles are reversed the child (Katie A. Keane) doesn’t seem equipped to help in the same way.  However, it is what it is and Judith doesn’t wish to add more stress to anyone’s life and makes up her own mind, something we can see she doesn’t have any trouble doing being a headstrong and independent woman that apparently had a wild child streak in her youth.

It’s an adjustment at the home.  No cell phones, restricted access to outdoors without being accompanied by a staff, restraint at night to those that refuse to stay in their beds, regular sedation if you can’t go through the night without incident.  She’s cheered up by sunny trio of residents Trish (Jill Larson, The Taking of Deborah Logan), Ruth (Fran Bennett, The Doctor), and Roland (Bruce Davison, Insidious: The Last Key) who feel, like her, that staying young at heart is what will keep you alive longer. The good spirit boost doesn’t last long because Judith starts to see a frightening figure at night creeping around the manor and when people start to die, she fears she’s next.  Or is it all in her head, part of the growing confusion of dementia? Is she merely fearing the inevitable and conjuring a portent of the specter of death, much like the black cat that roams the halls and is believed to be a predictor of who will be the next to die?

Writer/director Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween) has had an interesting career up until this point.  Beginning as a journalist before getting into the film industry as a sometime actress and then moving behind the camera, she was married to flash in the pan horror director Neil Marshall.  Now making her own name for herself, she’s written and directed this short but (bitter)sweet story that’s as much about getting older and cast aside as it is about what may be preying on the elders at a retirement home.  It’s the best kind of paranoid horror film in that it drops teeny clues along the way, blink and you miss them hints at the direction you should be considering.  It suggests thought was put into each character (down to minor ones) and that all were integral to the solution that arrives. 

Playing her first lead in a film in nearly two decades, Hershey is brilliantly cast as the still-vibrant woman knowing she’s not crazy and having to defend her sanity to people in her life that should be her advocates not her adversaries.  It’s frustrating to watch the way the nursing home staff and medical personnel speak to her, like she’s a child.  People in this confused state, which they sometimes are, don’t need to be harangued or snapped at, they need care and understanding, and Hershey’s take on the role only gets us more on her side the further we get.  It’s also nice that Carolyn doesn’t lean too far into the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope for Judith…we see what she sees so there’s little doubt as to what’s going on.  I also liked her trio of allies that give her the lay of the land and keep her spirits high and Ciera Payton (Oldboy) as a friendly nurse makes for another strong supporting player.  Judith’s daughter and grandson are middling, but only because both are so aggravatingly inert in their efforts to help their relative, especially Keane’s character who essentially gets told by a suspicious doctor at the manor, “Don’t believe your mother or let her leave her.” and then just refuses to listen to anything she says.

At 81 minutes, you’d think The Manor would miss something critical as it tries to jet to the action, but it doesn’t.  Surprisingly, it nimbly gets on its feet and keeps moving at an easy clip without dragging right until the end.  That doesn’t allow viewers a chance to get too far ahead of what’s to come, creating a solid package.  It’s sparse on jump scares but has a few creepy visuals that are effective in rattling your bones at just the right frequency.  With taut pacing and tight acting, The Manor and Madres should be the blueprints of Welcome to the Blumhouse films in the future, and I do hope they come back next October with more.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting of Bly Manor

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After an au pair’s tragic death, Henry Wingrave hires a young American nanny to care for his orphaned niece and nephew who reside at Bly Manor. But all is not as it seems at the manor, and centuries of dark secrets of love and loss are waiting to be unearthed because at Bly Manor, dead doesn’t mean gone.

Stars: Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Tahirah Sharif

Director: Mike Flanagan, Ciarán Foy, Axelle Carolyn, Liam Gavin, Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke

Running Length: 9 episodes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix debuted writer/director Mike Flanagan’s clever reworking of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House and it became the type of buzzed about show every streaming service dreams of.  Viewers posted about its spine-tingling scares, marveled at its creativity in taking Jackson’s novel concerning a spooky haunted house and turning it into a family drama masquerading as a horror series, and began dissecting the intricate ways Flanagan (who directed each episode and had at least some part their conception) had made it all fit together.  More than anything, everyone wanted more.  The trouble was, the story had been told and Flanagan was a smart enough filmmaker to know that returning to make a continuation would be a disaster.

Instead, the pitch to Netflix was to step back and see this as an opportunity for each season to be an entirely new “Haunting of” and so Flanagan the producer was given the green light (and lots of green, I’m sure) to explore a new set of spirits.  Here we are, two years after Hill House closed its doors and we’re standing at the front steps of The Haunting of Bly Manor which has arrived just in time for a chilly October welcome.  Taking inspiration from the works of Henry James (and not just the author’s celebrated and oft-filmed “The Turn of the Screw as you may have originally thought) Flanagan’s involvement in the second season is limited to directing the first episode.  As was the original intent on Hill House, Flanagan then hands the reins of the remaining episodes to four different directors and one directing duo.  This creates an unavoidable discord from episode to episode, which unfortunately holds Bly Manor back from reaching the same level as its previous season.

By this point, I’ve seen enough of the work Flanagan has done (Oculus, Doctor Sleep, Gerald’s Game) to spot his style so the season opener starts strong out of the gate.  A framing device reveals a narrator I was greatly excited to see, but I’ve been asked not to reveal who it is.  Though we see them briefly on screen in the first and final episodes that take place in 2007, their main contribution comes from a voiceover that gives a storytelling structure to the episodes.  They take us back to 1987 in London when American Dani (Victoria Pedretti, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) is hired for an au pair position with barrister Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, Fire in the Sky) to care for his niece and nephew at Bly Manor, their home in the English countryside.  Dani seeks solace away from the busy city and a glowing eyed figure that haunts her reflection and hopes Bly Manor will be a good change of pace.

Arriving at the well-kept estate, she meets the other staff.  Gardner Jamie (Amelia Eve), Cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) are all welcoming in their own way and instantly take a liking to the way she is able to communicate with the children.  Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) appear to be well-adjusted considering they’ve lost their parents and a previous caregiver in short order and under tragic circumstances but need Dani’s attention and even her discipline to remain that way.  They do have their own peculiarities though.  Flora’s dollhouse is a small scale replica of Bly Manor and is filled with crude dolls that bear an off-putting resemblance to members of the staff…and others.  The dolls seem to have a way of turning up in strange places and Flora is particular about who touches them and where they should stay at night.  Keeping Dani off balance becomes a game for Miles who appears to be bold with his actions one moment and less assured the next.

Over the episodes we come to learn more about Dani and what led to her leaving her home in the US and the secret she’s trying to hide from at Bly Manor.  Then there’s Wingrave’s former assistant Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) who was thought to have disappeared with a hefty sum of embezzled money but may have returned to the grounds for another sinister score.  We’ll also find out the full story about the children’s previous nanny (Tahirah Sharif) and how her time in the manor led to a destructive path.  More secrets are scattered throughout that I either won’t or can’t spoil for you at this time, but the fun in the show is gathering all the mysteries that Flanagan and his writers introduced and then waiting for the solutions to arrive.

The trouble with Bly Manor is, I think, that there are too many episodes.  Where Hill House made good use of its 10-episode arc, Bly Manor can’t exactly justify the nine full length chapters, many of which are excessively talky and meditative.  Audiences coming expecting another Hill House are bound to be disappointed with Bly Manor’s more arid setting and less intimate feel.  The writing also doesn’t feel as carefully crafted here and that’s a major problem for me.  You could tell that the script for Hill House was delivered nearly complete but I kept getting the impression Bly Manor began filming before the scripts for later episodes were done and that’s on account of those final episodes struggling without much plot mechanics to work with.  Hill House was such a thrill because it was solving its own mystery as it went along without you even realizing it…so that in the final episode it sort of went “Ta-Da!” and you suddenly realized what it had accomplished right under your nose.  In Bly Manor, the answers arrive without the same satisfaction.

Perhaps it’s because I didn’t warm to these characters in the same way I linked up with the family at the heart of Hill House.  Watching that show again in the days before taking on Bly Manor, I was struck not by how well it holds up on a second viewing (which it most definitely does) but how deeply emotional it is more than anything.  Though she’s playing another tortured soul, Pedretti manages to transform into a totally different person which is a complete 180 from the gentle Nell in Hill House. Aside from Miller’s uniformly excellent performance as the manor’s kindly housekeeper and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kohli’s cook working at Bly Manor while harboring dreams of opening his own restaurant, much of the cast stalls out when saddled with some of the expositional dialogue that starts to infiltrate the back episodes. when a lot of ground needs to be covered in short order.

Here’s the good news, though.  Forget about the long-winded speeches the writers start to favor near the end of the season.  Try to ignore the eyebrow raising accents from Americans going full community theater with their “veddy Breetish” patterns of speech. Pay no attention to the fact there’s a disappointing lack of ingenuity in the camera-work or hidden Easter eggs like last season which make future viewings more fun.  No, what you need to know is that with all the nitpicks I’ve picked at, I still think Bly Manor is well worth a visit.  One episode is downright great (sadly…or smartly, Netflix already asked me not to tell you which one) and there’s another focused on Miller that’s a definite highlight.  There are far too many shows that prove popular that don’t spend half the time this show does on how things fit together.  The production design is gorgeous, the ‘80s styles are chic but not gaudy or intrusive, and while I didn’t love the finale as much as I in particular should have, it’s a brave way to end things with a look toward a possible third residence to haunt.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tales of Halloween

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Ten stories are woven together by their shared theme of Halloween night in an American suburb, where ghouls, imps, aliens and axe murderers appear for one night only to terrorize unsuspecting residents.

Stars: Booboo Stewart, Adrianne Curry, Barry Bostwick, Pat Healy, Lin Shaye, Sam Witwer, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Cameron Easton, Nick Principe, Jennifer Wenger, John Savage, Adrienne Barbeau

Directors: Neil Marshall, David Parker, Darren Lynn Bousman, Adam Gierasch, Axelle Carolyn, Lucky McKee, Paul Solet, John Skipp, Andrew Kasch, Mike Mendez, Ryan Schifrin

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The problem I seem to have with many horror films is follow-through.  While quite a few have a good central concept, tasked with stretching that idea to a feature running length can water down the story the filmmaker wanted to tell.  That’s what makes Tales of Halloween such a tricky treat for horror lovers because it relieves the writers and directors of the need to overstuff their campfire tales.

A nice throwback to the days of anthology horror (Asylum, From Beyond the Grave, After Midnight, Trick ‘r Treat), the 10 frightful fables featured in Tales of Halloween are very loosely drawn together by radio disc jockey (Adrienne Barbeau, maybe playing the same character she did in The Fog?) who operates in a town where all of the action takes place.  With multiple directors and writers, this could easily have been reduced to incongruous material joined together by the Halloween theme but the assembled product is remarkably consistent in tone.

While there’s not a real stinker story in the bunch, some are more effective than others and with a running length of 97 minutes you won’t have to wait long before one tale wraps up and another begins.  Starting off strong with Sweet Tooth (nvolving an urban legend of a candy monster targeting those that don’t share) the various sequences that follow feature evil trick or treaters turning the tables on a foursome with secrets of their own, a kidnapping gone terribly awry, an evil demon called upon to punish some wicked street thugs, and a super fun reversal of fortune for a backwoods killer who encounters a UFO.  Of all the mini-features, only the final one involving a rampaging killer pumpkin (don’t laugh…well, ok…laugh) is one I could see having a feature length life of its own.

The acting has its ups and downs and those craving torture-porn gore and nudity will come away empty-handed.  Still, there’s enough gross out moments and wicked twists of fate to please most horror fans looking for something new to watch.  It’s also nice to see some fun in-jokes and a whole host of familiar faces of horror from both in front of and behind the camera. Here’s hoping we get More Tales of Halloween in the future.