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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The 9th Life of Louis Drax

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Synopsis: A psychologist begins working with a young boy who has suffered a near-fatal fall and finds himself drawn into a mystery that tests the boundaries of fantasy and reality.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: French director Alexandre Aja is known for his more, ahem, extreme work (High Tension, Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Horns), so I was more than a little surprised his name was attached to this big-screen adaptation of Liz Jensen’s 2005 novel.  I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for characters to be dispatched of in a most grisly fashion but perhaps The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an attempt to show Aja’s softer side.  Focused on a comatose boy and the secret as to why he’s in his current state, this September release might be a nice return for the carefully constructed mystery genre that’s been dormant for far too long in my book.  Starring Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Barbara Hershey (Insidious: Chapter 2), and Oliver Platt (Flatliners), if Aja can withhold the bloodletting and let the story take center stage he may just have a winner on his hands.

Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Michael James Grise, Lindsay Seim, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:

I always considered 2010’s Insidious a re-purposing of sorts of 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films had parallel themes and characters and you didn’t have to dig very deep to see these similarities.  Unfortunately, this sequel also has a lot in common with Poltergeist II: The Other Side released in 1986…that is to say it’s not as scary, explains way more than it has to, and didn’t really need to be made in the first place.

I think what made Insidious so notable was how it approached its scares.  By letting the audience do most of the work and not throwing cats at the camera to supply jump scares, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell used the low-budget trappings to their advantage.  Getting the most bang for their buck they eschewed fancy special effects for practical and effective frights that kept the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end long after the credits were done.

It’s disappointing then, that the three years between the two films was not really worth the wait.  Though it’s unquestionably a cut above the majority of horror films released this year (You’re Next and The Purge had their moments but fell short for this reviewer) it falls below the bar set by July’s The Conjuring…which is interesting because it was also directed by Wan.  I had hopes that since Wan and Whannell took three years to deliver the next chapter in the story that there would be something of greater substance and similar restraint like its predecessor.

Sadly, where the first movie kept its cards close to its chest, Chapter 2 is an open book.  Too much time is taken to explain simply everything that’s happening and you feel like shouting at the screen “We didn’t really need to know that!” at the various characters that suddenly feel the need to unload their hidden secrets.  My biggest let-down in mysteries/thrillers tends to be the ending where loose ends are tied up and motives are clarified and this movie is just a series of reveals and explanations.

I’d be telling a fib if I said that Wan doesn’t cook up some fairly spooky sequences that gave me a brief case of the willies.  Though the presence of the Lipstick-Face Man from #1 is sadly missed, Wan has provided a handful of creepy characters that continue to haunt Josh (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Renai (Rose Byrne, The Internship) Lambert and their family.

Picking up seconds after the first one ended the movie follows the Lambert’s as they take up residence with Grandma (Barbara Hershey) in her foreboding wood varnished house.  It’s not long before the baby alarms are once again signaling a malevolent presence and apparitions start to play games with the Lambert’s.  It’s hard to reveal anything more without spoiling not only the ending to the first movie and also ruining some mediocre twists this one has waiting for you.

What I liked about the movie was that it made an effort to continue this story and explore the mythology behind the haunting with a snappy prologue focusing on Josh as a child.  Whannell also gets nice marks for finding a way to bring elements of the first film back in a most clever fashion.  The trouble with that, though, is that ultimately this movie will always be tied to the first film and probably wouldn’t work if judged on its own merits as a stand-alone film.  By continuing the story the way they did, Wan and Whannell have painted themselves into a corner and even a last ditch effort to make future installments a possibility doesn’t exactly ring true…or seem very interesting.

In the first film the Lambert’s struggle was focused almost solely in their house.  This film opens up the playing field and so we have too many scenes away from the action…or in places that don’t make sense if you are following closely.  Hershey for instance has a long-ish escapade with returning comedic relief Whannell and Angus Sampson as they do some recon work in several locations that they seem to have no trouble gaining access to.  I had to laugh when not only were they able to break into the abandoned hospital where Hershey used to work but that all of the hospital records were miraculously still there.

Wan has been quoted recently as saying that this film would be his swan song to the horror genre and maybe that’s a good thing.  Clearly talented, perhaps it was too much to hope that Wan would be able to deliver two superior horror films in the span of one year.  While this isn’t a total write-off and is worth seeing if you are a fan of the first film, it winds up being a let-down in part because for all the new ground this one tries to break it doesn’t get under the skin like the original did.

Down from the Shelf ~ Insidious

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Joseph Bishara, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: One of my all time favorite horror films is 1982’s Poltergeist.  Following a family experiencing strange goings on in their house, the film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and was directed by Tobe Hooper who shocked audiences with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It remains a shining example in the horror genre as a perfect balance of supernatural horror and family drama.

So it’s no big shocker that I have a fondness for 2010’s Insidious which, if you really think about it, is practically a modern day retelling of Poltergeist.  It follows the Poltergeist formula quite faithfully, i.e. suburban family of five is terrorized by ghostly happenings, eventually calling on a medium to figure out what (or who) the heck is reaching out from the other side.  Frights and freak-outs abound until the final showdown when the living and the dead collide.

I’m still aghast that 2014 will see the release of a Poltergeist remake so why am I letting Insidious off the hook so easily?  Well, it’s because Insidious is still very much its own movie with its own twist on the well-worn ghost story.  Director James Wan (The Conjuring) and screenwriter/supporting star Leigh Whannell (Saw) cleverly work in more than a few spine-tingling turns and several honest-to-goodness terrifying moments.  There are certain sequences in the film that to this day I find hard to watch without feeling my heart start to race.

It helps that Wan has gathered a unique cast together that you may not normally associate with horror films.  Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) has come a long way from the guy I saw in the The Full Monty on Broadway and he is an interesting enough actor to not let himself get pigeon-holed in one character.  While Bridesmaids was still a year away for Rose Byrne (The Internship), she’d already made a minor splash on television with her twisty, layered role on Damages.  The first time I saw the movie I remember not caring much for Byrne’s performance but revisiting it recently I found her to be the true solid center of the troupe.

Colorful supporting performances abound including Barbara Hershey’s minor role as Wilson’s mother who has some key information about the origin of the strange events besieging her son and his family.  Though Hershey memorably starred in the otherwise unmemorable The Entity from 1982 (in which her nude body was famously molested by a ghost) she wasn’t known for her work in this genre.  Lin Shaye, Whannell, and burly Angus Sampson are part of a trio of paranormal researchers that help the family get to the root of the evil that gives way to a spooky as all get out finale.

Wan’s freaky final act of Insidious has the same effect as going through a haunted house – working with cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti he puts the audience right there with the actors never letting the viewer see something that the others don’t.  It’s a nerve-wracking sequence heighted by Joseph Bishara’s nightmare-inducing score, not to mention Bishara’s performance as “Lipstick-Face Demon”.

Though a low-budget film, the movie has a nice shine to it and holds up on repeat viewings…which is saying something for a horror film dependent on the element of surprise.  It’s a tad too long and some viewers may find a few passages a little silly but it’s all part of the fun and (scary) games Wan and company have waiting for you.

The Silver Bullet ~ Insidious: Chapter 2

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Synopsis: The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

Release Date:  September 13, 2013

Thoughts:  All eyes are going to be on this September horror flick for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost: it’s a follow-up to 2010’s surprise hit that was heavy on atmosphere over gore and quite effectively made haunted house flicks scary again.  Speaking of haunted houses, this will be James Wan’s second film in 2013 that centers on a family terrorized by more than just the things that go bump in the night.  Wan was also responsible for July’s The Conjuring, one of the scariest films I’ve seen in years (you’ve seen it, right…I mean, right?) so we all know he has the goods to tap into what freaks us out the most.  Had this movie been released in 2011 as a quick cash-grab I may be more hesitant about it but knowing that Wan and company took their time with it gives me good vibes…and some ominous chills.

Thoughts: