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 Forever Purge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: All the rules are broken as a sect of lawless marauders decides that the annual Purge does not stop at daybreak and instead should never end.

Stars: Josh Lucas, Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, Will Patton, Leven Rambin, Cassidy Freeman, Susie Abromeit, Will Brittain

Director: Everado Gout

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  At first, I was going to take a pass on The Forever Purge, having skipped The First Purge back in 2018.  Back then, I felt like the franchise had run its course and going back to the beginning (origin-exploring being popular at the time) felt like an easy trip to the bank for the filmmakers and the studio.  Released to a surprising amount of success in 2013, The Purge made back its budget and a heck of a lot more, quickly spawning The Purge: Anarchy a year later.  2016’s The Purge: Election Year wasn’t the worst election related bit of theatrics we saw that year but despite the presence of stars Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell it signaled creative energy waning.  All easy reasons why the fourth film was such an easy skip. 

So, why pick up with #5, another half-hearted titled affair originally intended for release in the summer of 2020 and arriving a year later?  I think it was honest curiosity after seeing the spooky poster and some suggestion it would be abandoning its long-standing urban setting for a playing field that’s more of a western vibe.  Could a change of scenery be the thing The Purge saga needed to stay relevant or re-energized?  Or would it just be another retelling of the same story, just with characters sporting cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats?

Well, it’s a little bit of both.  While The Forever Purge isn’t any big revelation as far as horror action films go, it makes a decent attempt to get something extra from its near the border location and (gruesomely) hammer home not just a message about how the U.S. treats immigrants and minorities but what it would be like if the tables were turned.  It can’t quite meet its goal on an issues-based level thanks to its primary mission of for-the-masses entertainment and it grandstands heartily, but in the end, it swings back to familiar territory so no Purge fan will leave a viewing wholly unfulfilled.

Illegally crossing the border to escape their troubled past, Mexican couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera, Army of the Dead) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta, Tigers Are Not Afraid) soon find work in a small Texas town.  She works in a local processing plant and he’s a ranch hand on the Tucker farm where they both live.  While Juan is friendly with most of the Tucker family, head of the clan Dylan (Josh Lucas, The Secret: Dare to Dream) doesn’t warm to him and it isn’t hard to guess why thanks to screenwriter and Purge-creator James DeMonaco’s blunt dialogue.  There isn’t much time to decode the differences between the two men because the annual Purge has been reinstated after being dormant for a number of years and tonight everyone is going their own separate ways to stay safe.  The Tucker family, including Dylan’s pregnant wife, his father, and sister are staying in their ranch fortress while Adela and Juan travel with their fellow immigrants to a safe space where they can avoid any trouble from marauders seeking to “cleanse” the town of their “illegals”.

After the night of government-sanctioned bloodshed, everyone emerges and begins to pick up the pieces from the grisly night…only to find that a rogue group of underground Purge-ers have decided one night isn’t enough.  Now, the Ever After Purge is on and no one is safe in the day or night.  As you can guess in the boiled down simplicity of this fifth entry, the two families will have to put aside their differences if they are to survive as Adela and Juan lead the Tuckers back over the border into Mexico where they would be safe.

The concept of Americans being desperate to cross over borders into Canada and Mexico and become basically illegal immigrants is novel, I’ll give DeMonaco that, but it feels like a “what if” scenario that’s years too late to be revelatory.  Yes, we can look at the irony of it and chuckle at how strange it would be for all these Republican longhorns that were formerly desperate to keep illegal Mexican people out of their town now pleading with their cooks and maids to help them cross over, but is it honestly all that funny?  The night before these same people were likely out hunting these people down.  That’s the problem with these films in the first place:  The Purge was designed to address lawlessness by allowing an anything goes one night a year free for all but all it does is make all that rage grow stronger during the year, so it doesn’t address the inherent rot in society that’s the real crime.

Director Everardo Gout seems to have been handed a guidebook to creating a Purge film and occasionally drops in something familiar to fans of the franchise.  Thankfully, there seems to be more of an emphasis on finding and developing some interesting characters in this one and that what sets it in some small way apart from the others.  I sparked to de la Reguera much like I did in Army of the Dead earlier this year.  She brings a strength to the role that is unexpected but believable when she is called on to take action.  Partnered well with the equally valued Huerta, they outshine Lucas who is completely on autopilot as the twang-y ranch owner thrust into the thick of it and learning about his own personal failings along the way.  The other thing I don’t care for in these movies is that there is never one sole villain, just a series of human roadblocks that have to be dealt with.  There’s no one that is memorable here serving in this space, so I won’t even bother mentioning them.

It’s rumored this was to be the final Purge film, but I wouldn’t count out that DeMonaco has one or two more of these left in him and I’d be interested to see how he could work himself out of the corner the finale painted him into.   The Forever Purge has good moments and probably would play nicely if doing a binge-watch of the entire series…but I’d want one more film to truly cap things off.

Movie Review ~ Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.

Stars: Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta

Director: Issa López

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While Hollywood studios and low-budget independent financiers in the United States were busy perfecting the slice and dice slasher film and then running it into the ground over the last few decades, the filmmakers south of the border have been interested in more than just bloody shocks. I’ve seen enough Spanish and Mexican horror by this point to know that you aren’t coming to see these carefully contrived films for high body counts, excessive nudity, or any of the other trappings that has given the horror genre such a bad (and boring!) name. Instead, you are more apt to find terrors that spring from ordinary circumstances following average folk as they discover what’s scaring them might be something of their own creation.

Even without the supernatural elements that gradually infiltrate Tigers Are Not Afraid, there is enough real-life horror to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The devastating effects of the drug wars in Mexico City have been well-documented in investigative pieces and fictionalized films like Sicario and Sicaro: Day of the Soldado. Gruesome murders between dueling cartels are used to send messages between rivals, often leaving bodies in broad daylight or having people simply vanish without a trace.  Rising gun violence and the increase in competition have driven crime to staggering levels.

Two very different children feature prominently in the action as sort of a modern day Peter Pan and Wendy.  El Shine (Juan Ramón López) is the leader of a rag-tag group of lost boys living on the streets and steering clear of Caco, the crime boss in their district. On a very different path is Estrella (Paola Lara), a school-girl living with her single mother. As the film opens, Estrella is learning about fairy tales in her classroom when an act of violence spins her world upside down and sends her down a rabbit hole of dark visions and deadly consequences. When her mother disappears, she finds her way into El Shine’s gang as she searches for her lost parent, bringing her ever closer to an evil that seems to be tracking her.

Writer/director Issa López makes the most out of a small budget and manages to get some great performances out of her young actors in the process. The kids are asked to go through quite the emotional wringer and there’s an intellectual maturity in these children that’s hard to teach. If, in the end, the skeleton of the story isn’t that complicated and doesn’t quite match the more complex narratives orchestrated in films like The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, or Tesis, there’s enough intriguing ideas present to make it an above average offering. It’s also rather unpredictable, taking several turns I didn’t think it had the guts to go through with.  You’re advised to stick with it during a slightly saggy middle section, paying attention to some carefully dropped clues by López as to what’s developing.

More spooky than scary, but fairly sad when you contemplate the grim reality facing children living in similar conditions, I wasn’t anticipating Tigers Are Not Afraid to be such a somber horror entry . With its visages of tarp-wrapped bodies beckoning to young children and a blood trail that literally follows our heroine home from school, the film isn’t short on unsettling sights. López has a good eye for how to get maximum value out of a tense moment and a keen sense of timing to not linger long in the blackness. Still, I think audiences will come away from the movie more stirred than shaken.

The Silver Bullet ~ Bel Canto

Synopsis: A world famous opera singer becomes trapped in a hostage situation when she’s invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist in South America.

Release Date: September 14, 2018

Thoughts: It’s been four years since Julianne Moore won her long overdue Oscar for Still Alice and she’s largely avoided the Best Actress curse popping up in interesting, if underperforming, films like Wonderstruck and Suburbicon.  In 2018 she’s back with two interesting projects: Gloria, a US remake of a popular Chilean film and this adaptation of Ann Patchett’s bestseller which casts Moore as a opera singer who becomes a hostage and political chess piece in a South American uprising.  Written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Grandma, Being Flynn) and co-starring Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) I have to say this looks more important than entertaining.  Also, while I’m glad they are being transparent that Moore’s singing voice is dubbed by the legendary Renee Fleming based on the few shots of her singing I’m a bit nervous it’s going to look too fake-y.  In the end, it’s Moore that appeals to me so I’m always interested in her work…but Bel Canto feels like it has an uphill battle in front of it.