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 Taking of Deborah Logan

the-taking-of-deborah-logan

The Facts:

Synopsis: An elderly woman battling Alzheimer’s disease agrees to let a film crew document her condition, but what they discover is something far more sinister going on.

Stars: Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang, Brett Gentile, Jeremy DeCarlos

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Where to Watch: Netflix (but only until October 21!)

Review: In my younger days when I worked at Mr. Movies, my wise old manager would put his feet up in the backroom, light up his pipe, and tell me all I needed to know about the home video rental business.  His first lesson was about box covers.  “Joe, I tell ya, a movie can be total garbage but if it has a good box cover we won’t be able to keep it on the shelf.” And he was right. Plenty of movies would arrive every week with cleverly designed covers that seemed to have more thought put into them than the movies themselves. With the days of store rentals long gone (RIP Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Video Update, Mr. Movies, Good Neighbor Video, etc) and the selections available for consumption reaching overwhelming proportions, a good cover still has a way to entice you to at least give something a shot.

Which brings me to The Taking of Deborah Logan.  I remember seeing it’s striking cover image on the Netflix homepage and putting it in my queue right away but it took me several months to give it a go and only after I had noticed the star rating stayed overwhelmingly high.  On Netflix, it’s rare for horror films to ever eek above 3 stars and that’s really only for the true genre classics.  So on a crisp fall Sunday morning in 2015 I fired it up with every intention of giving it a good fifteen minute college try before I switched to another episode of Friends.  90 minutes later, I was genuinely spooked.

I mention the year I watched this because it should tell you how, 12 months later, the movie has stuck with me…no small feat considering the volume of films I take in each year.  No, The Taking of Deborah Logan is that rare diamond in the rough (queue), that genre unicorn, that once in a blue moon kinda film…one that’s actually delivers on its promise to scare you and scare you good.

Skeptical on the outset because it was another entry in a long dreary line of “found footage” horror films, this one is far above average not only in quality but in story and performance.  What begins as a documentary on an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s (Jill Larson) and the way her downward spiral affects her daughter (Anne Ramsay, A League of Their Own) turns into something quite unexpected that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.  Where it winds up is something not even the most seasoned horror aficionado would be able to easily predict and director Adam Robitel (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) packs the film with enough twists, turns, and solid jump-out-of-your-seat moments to make this one something to seek out.

Robitel has cast the film well (mountains of kudos to Larson for her brave and bold work) and set much of it in the daytime so you can easily track what’s going on.  When it does descend into darkness (literally) it’s never hard to follow the action and those that get motion sickness from handheld camera work can proceed with ease because the shakiness is kept to a minimum.  Robitel and co-screenwriter Gavin Heffernan have taken the time to think through their finale and not just set it up to be one big scare after another.  That would have lessened the overall effect so instead of slow-burning their way through 80 minutes for a small 10 minute pay-off, the film is peppered with jolts that actually propel the action forward (and propel you to hide further under your blanket) instead of introducing a scare for the hell of it.  This is a smart film…a smart horror film.  How often does that happen>?

If The Taking of Deborah Logan had found its way to the shelves of my Mr. Movies store, I know it would have been a hot item…not just because the artwork catches your eye but because the film itself is equally as striking.   It should be high on the list of anyone that likes a convincing narrative and knockout performances to go with their scares.