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.

Movie Review ~ The Tax Collector


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A “tax collector” for a crime lord finds his family’s safety compromised when his boss’s old rival shows up in LA and upends his business.

Stars: Bobby Soto, Cinthya Carmona, Shia LaBeouf, Jose Conejo Martin, Cheyenne Rae Hernandez, Lana Parrilla, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Jimmy Smits

Director: David Ayer

Rated: R

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like David Ayer was going to make a nice name for himself as the go-to guy for macho man filmmaking that had a rare crossover appeal to a larger audience.  Beginning as the screenwriter of U-571 and the original The Fast and The Furious before hitting the A-list scripting Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Training Day, Ayer directed two under the radar features before scoring big in 2012.  That’s the year End of Watch debuted and it gave Ayer the chance to marry his hard-nosed storylines with a superior ability for creating high tension sequences.   His follow-ups, both released in 2014, were was the lesser but still strong Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Sabotage and Fury, the Brad Pitt tank film that should have garnered more acclaim than it did.

So you’d understand why it was with more than a modicum of excitement that I began to look forward to Ayer taking the reins of the newest DC Comics adaptation, Suicide Squad in 2018.  A darker version of The Avengers (another comic book team I had no real knowledge of before their big screen debut), this was a star-studded film set to be a franchise starting blockbuster.  Understanding what little I did about the Suicide Squad, it seemed like a perfect fit for Ayer’s grimier aesthetics which led to genuine interest that soon turned to fear when it was announced the film would be rated PG-13 instead of the assumed R.  When it was released, it was, as feared, a neutered piece of gaudy garbage that didn’t resemble anything Ayer had done before and what I’d hope he never do again.  Aside from 2017’s Bright, another critically lambasted film released on Netflix that still managed to get the service to sign Ayer to a sequel that’s in development (Suicide Squad was so bad Warner Brothers is already rebooting it as The Suicide Squad in 2021), the director has been largely silent since his Squad goals were squandered away.

I was hesitant at first to get my hopes up that Ayer’s latest feature would be the kind of true return to form the writer/director sorely needed to get himself back into the game.  After all, The Tax Collector sort of snuck up on everyone and is arriving in the middle of this pandemic crisis which hasn’t afforded it much in the way of publicity aside.  In fact, aside from a few mentions in the gossip blogs about co-star Shia LaBeouf getting a rather large tattoo on his chest in preparation for the film, I didn’t even know this movie existed before the link came my way to watch.  While it’s nice to report that his new film returns Ayer to a space that he feels more comfort in and characters that could almost in habit the same universe as those in his previous features, it’s ultimately a too-familiar retread that wallows in its gratuitous violence.

The urban streets of L.A. are the main stage of Ayer’s action in The Tax Collector, which focuses on David Cuevas (Bobby Soto, The Quarry) and his extended family and associates who are caught up in the violent sprawl of a criminal organization teetering on the brink of upheaval.   David and his partner Creeper (Le Beouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon) are responsible for making sure the streets gangs in their neighborhood are staying up to date on their “taxes” which are owed to Wizard, the jailed crime lord that keeps them safe.  Those that fail to pay or are delinquent have to answer to Creeper, a cauliflower-eared, easily-angered powder keg of a live wire that contrasts nicely with David’s more serene yet still serious de facto leader.

When Conejo, (Jose Conejo Martin) an enemy from Wizard’s past, returns and tests David’s allegiance, it sets off a series of bloody events which play out with frightening clarity under the cinematography of Salvatore Totino.  As Conejo continues to apply pressure to David and Creeper via various horrific methods, it forces the men into a corner where they’ll have to either join him or fight him and there can only be one survivor in the end.  No one is ever safe in Ayer’s films and The Tax Collector is no different; characters are brutally dispatched, many of whom would normally survive in typically Hollywood-happy style films.  For that, you have to admire Ayer’s willingness to buck trends but the film is so grotesquely violent that the longer the movie runs the less you want to watch because it becomes so unpleasant.

Part of me wonders if that’s sort of the point Ayer is trying to make.  Maybe that we care when certain characters die is a good thing because either he’s done his job or the actor has done their job…or both.  If you felt nothing toward the person and their part of the story, you would have little reaction to their fateful demise and while that may be letting Ayer’s bloodlust off with a slight tap on the wrist it’s an angle to at least be examined.  On the other hand, a movie that spirals into something as troubling as this does begins to work against itself by alienating its audience away, possibly inspiring them to stop watching all together.  No bones about it, this is a hard one to get through and you’ll have to gird your loins to maneuver through Ayer’s hellish final reel that pulls all the disgusting stops out and takes no prisoners.

Though LeBeouf is featured heavily in the trailer and marketing materials, he’s predominately a supporting character with the lead role tipping in favor of Soto.  Soto is cast well and while it takes him a bit to get going (same goes for the movie) by the time he’s educating a new gang leader on the procedure of what he does and what his expectations are, you’re bound to be paying attention.  His descent from provider/family man to man on a hell-bent mission is a believable journey and he draws energy from LeBeouf who also is largely on target as a right-hand man that’s OK with getting his hands dirty.  Though the role could be seen as problematic as the only white person in a cast of Latino/Latinx actors, he hasn’t been cast against race so that issue is moot.  (It should be noted that the infamous tattoo is seen for a split second…was it really worth it, Shia?) Newcomer Conejo Martin is totally terrifying as the demonic psychopath after David and his organization, as is Cheyenne Rae Hernandez as a female version of LeBeaouf’s character that works for the enemy.  The only actor that struggles to convince is Cinthya Carmona as David’s wife which is too bad because she’s such a pivotal role as the movie progresses.

Bound to be seen as another minor entry in Ayer’s directorial career, The Tax Collector at least earns him back some street cred that he lost when he made Suicide Squad.  I know much of the failure of that film was the result of the studio meddling with the final cut but you can’t completely excuse Ayer for how that turned out.  While this isn’t a great film or even a really good one if I’m being completely honest, there are enough intriguing pieces one can gather to make the viewing experience not a complete waste of time if you have the nerves to get through it.