WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE: Four Filmmakers on the Horrors of Community

A conversation with directors Gigi Saul Guerrero, Maritte Lee Go, Ryan Zaragoza and Axelle Carolyn.

By Richard Newby · @RICHARDLNEWBY · October 13, 2021, 4:22 PM PDT
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WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE (2021)

Welcome to the Blumhouse is back with four new tales of terror from a diverse collection of some of the most interesting new voices in contemporary horror. This time around, the four films, Bingo Hell, Black as Night, Madres, and The Manor are bound by themes of community and the ways in which we rely on them and fear that they may tear us apart.

FANGORIA had the privilege of talking to each of the four filmmakers about their films, which are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, their influences, and the need for more horror films centered on voices we don't hear from often enough. The synopses for each film are included below, courtesy of Blumhouse Productions.

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Bingo Hell - Gigi Saul Guerrero (El Gigante, Mexico Barbaro, Culture Shock)

"When a sinister figure threatens the residents of a low-income community, a feisty senior citizen tries to stop him in Bingo Hell, a wickedly original horror movie with a fiendishly funny twist. After 60-something neighborhood activist Lupita (Adriana Barraza) discovers that her beloved local bingo hall has been taken over by a mysterious businessman named Mr. Big (Richard Brake), she rallies her elderly friends to fight back against the enigmatic entrepreneur. But when her longtime neighbors begin turning up dead under grisly circumstances, Lupita suddenly discovers that gentrification is the least of her problems. Something terrifying has made itself at home in the quiet barrio of Oak Springs, and with each new cry of "Bingo!" another victim falls prey to its diabolical presence. As the cash prizes increase and the body count steadily rises, Lupita must face the frightening realization that this game is truly winner-takes-all."

It's really cool that we get to see characters we don't often get to see represented in modern horror: senior citizens. I'm curious about how you came to this story and decided to do something really unique with leads we don't see a lot of in horror.

Aww thank you! I was just excited to tell everybody to just imagine Grumpy Old Men or Batteries Not Included in a Rob Zombie universe. To me, that got me excited, and I was like, 'I want to see something like that!' But also, we really wanted to make a movie that was for our grandparents, a movie for the older generation, that they could be like, 'wow, we're the heroes of this genre film. I never thought I'd see that.' This all came about just from a very simple conversation with my longtime friend and collaborator, Shane McKenzie. He was saying to me, 'do you know where I was last night? I was at a bingo hall, and these seniors were crazy competitive. It was a little scary.' And I said to him, 'dude, you should see my grandma play bingo. That is no joke terrifying [laughs]. And from there, we started talking about what would happen if we took the game away from them. And I was like, oh, things are about to go down real quick! So, we got excited with that idea and presented it to Blumhouse, and they were like, 'we love it! Get to work!' For me, it was exciting because I was able to co-write with these guys a character that could really be dedicated to my grandma, who I love dearly. And honestly, Richard, what better kinds of people to put in a horror movie? They are the most charming, the most cute, and pretty much the most incredibly stubborn humans on Earth. This is seniors [laughs]. So, we need that charm in this film. I don't think any other age group would've made this as it is.

I'm also a fan of your film, Culture Shock.

Thank you!

I think it's evident with that film and Bingo Hell that you have a neat ability as a filmmaker to ground the viewer in a place. With Bingo Hell there's a sense of history, this neighborhood feels lived in. We see this shift that happens as the pillars of a community are replaced by newcomers and gentrification sets in. Could you talk a bit about exploring that element?

For sure! I think all of us really understand gentrification. It's a topic that, for some, it's down the street, and for some, it's right where they are, or they know people who have been kicked out of their own homes. And for us, it was really important to us that we had another extra element that could help break the stereotype of the weak and the old. We know of a lot of people that have unfortunately been moved from their homes that were older. Or older people that get scams on the phone and fall for them. So, it was time to really show an older generation that has refused to leave. And it's just that core group that is still standing strong and keeping the community together. This film really represents the true meaning of community and friendship that not even gentrification or the strong pull of greed can break apart. So, it was a lot of different combinations that only with the charm of senior citizens would really sell the idea.

The design of the Bingo Hall when Richard Brake's character comes in is very cool. You mentioned Rob Zombie as an influence, but this also has a neon aesthetic. What were your influences for the film's aesthetic?

Well, we said to each other, 'what if Willy Wonka had his own bingo hall? What would that look like? [Laughs]. But also, we wanted this hall to feel so out of place in the town of Oak Springs. What would my grandma feel uncomfortable at? So, it was just that feeling of being blinded by lights and colors that was exciting. We wanted to make color the enemy. And so, collaborating with the production designer of the bingo hall and the cinematographer of the movie, we all wanted color to be Mr. Big's influence. We wanted that fanciness, that flashiness of the updated, of the modern to take over the hall. It's fun when you can make colors be the thing that we're threatened by. Mr. Big is all about the colors, my friend!

There's an element of Stephen King's Needful Things in Mr. Big that I dug. I know Richard Brake has also been in Rob Zombie's films, was he always your choice for the role?

You know, in a way yes, but I wasn't admitting to it. I was using Richard Brake's photos and face all over my reference board, and all over the lookbook. But when he auditioned, it just kind of clicked in, 'Oh God, that's Richard Brake auditioning!' And it was perfect. He was so good! It got us all so excited that he read the material and auditioned for it. He just has such an incredible technical side to his acting. But also, let's be honest, Richard Brake has the greatest face on this planet. He has the best facial features and smile that brought so many layers to the character. He rocked!

I felt Bingo Hell had some similar thematic elements to Culture Shock. As much as bingo is a game that's supposed to be fun, the use of it in this film is also commenting on the fact that so much of American society is built around money, escapism, and a need to feel validated by what you own, and who gets to own what. Was the thematic tie to Culture Shock and exploring the horrors of modern American society something that was on your mind making this film?

Yeah! You pretty much said it perfectly, to be honest with you. [Laughs]. I think genre allows us to really grab anything that is so topical and make it entertaining and fun. To be able to escape the reality and horrors of what we see every day. In a movie like Bingo Hell, which you perfectly said, we really wanted to show the theme of greed in a different light. A character like Mr. Big represents the darkest side of ourselves. We're all guilty for wanting more, or the next best thing, or improvement. And that's ok. But sometimes, we fall into the trap of greed, of thinking that money might solve our problems, and that's not always the case. I think this movie really plays level on how we think we need the improvement, when people like the characters of Lupita and Delores are happy where they are. They don't need anything else.

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Black As Night - Maritte Lee Go (Phobias, Rise)

"A resourceful teenage girl leaves childhood behind when she battles a group of deadly vampires in Black as Night, an action-horror hybrid with a strong social conscience and a biting sense of humor. Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a new threat leaves its mark on the Big Easy in the form of puncture wounds on the throats of the city's vulnerable displaced population. When her drug-addicted mom becomes the latest victim of the undead, 15-year old Shawna (Asjha Cooper) vows to even the score. Along with three trusted friends, Shawna hatches a bold plan to infiltrate the vampire's mansion in the historic French Quarter, destroy their leader, and turn his fanged disciples back to their human form. But killing monsters is no easy task, and soon Shawna and her crew find themselves caught in a centuries-old conflict between warring vampire factions, each fighting to claim New Orleans as their permanent home."

I thought it was really interesting how you tackled how the horrors of Katrina are still very much present in New Orleans. There's a lot of institutionalized racism behind why that is, which Black as Night highlights. So, I'm just curious about what led you to address those issues in that location?

Well, actually Sherman Payne, who's the writer and incredibly talented, when he originally wrote the script it was set in New York. That's where he's from. The script had been passed around for over ten years from studio to studio, and people really liked it, but for some reason, didn't want to make it. But the timing ended up being perfect because Blumhouse was looking for stories like this. The slate of Welcome to the Blumhouse films were all shooting in New Orleans. They shot it like a TV show, and they all had the same crew and cycled through the directors and DPs. But they formatted Black as Night to fit New Orleans, and honestly, I think it's perfect. There's so much history there. It feels like you're in Europe. There's so much to delve into and explore, specifically with Katrina and the trauma that people have been through, and all of the injustices people have experienced.

To explore that through the film really added another depth to what could've been just a really fun vampire movie. But to be able to explore things our country is really concerned about was amazing because it's impactful. We shot this through the pandemic and were shut down halfway through, and in that break, not only were we dealing with the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter Movement was also happening. There were protests on the streets. It sounded like war. So, we're kind of addressing all of these injustices through the film, and it was cathartic in a way to be able to have a voice that was talking through these issues and hopefully be able to carry the message in a more positive way.

The film tackles colorism in a unique way. It takes having darker skin and makes it into something of a superpower, which fits in nicely with the Blade references. I'm curious about your perspective on presenting that concept.

It was very, very important to us to cast a dark-skinned Black woman. I think that we as a global society have established a standard of beauty, and dark skin hasn't been a part of that standard in many places. It was part of our responsibility as filmmakers to change that, if we want to change that. That was very important to me for representation. I'm Filipino, and we have the same issues in my culture. Colorism is a big deal. The lighter skin you have, the more beautiful you are by those standards. So growing up, my parents would say, 'stay out of the sun because if you're dark-skinned you're ugly, pinch your nose, your nose needs to be thinner.' So, it kind of implanted in me that the way I was naturally was not beautiful. I really felt what Shawna's character felt in that she had never been celebrated in the way that she was. I wanted to put that message out there that you are beautiful exactly the way that you are, and that you can find your strength within yourself to show that beauty and to influence others to say, embrace yourself and embrace the way that you were made, and love yourself. It was so important for me to put that out there because that really is, for me, one of my life purposes. I got into filmmaking because I was an actress before, and I kept getting cast in stereotypical roles, such as the geisha or the nail technician, where I couldn't even speak English. And I was like, why is there no representation out there to see people of color in more in-depth ways. Why aren't we human beings? This is a script where we see Shawna's fears, her strengths, and we get to know her on such an intimate level that I had to be a part of something that could show that to other people who have felt this way. You are being seen, heard, and celebrated.

One of the themes I've found through this iteration of Welcome to the Blumhouse is community and how there's both value to it and horror in it. What would you like audiences to take away from your perspective of community through this film?

That's a great question. I think what I'd like to see is for the filmmakers who dream of being filmmakers to celebrate their own voices and experiences. To not take things that have been created before and just cycle through that but to really embrace who you are as an individual. If you're from a community that's never been seen on TV, to see this slate of films that uplifts communities that have never been seen on film before, it's such a huge deal. This really has not been done before. For Blum and Amazon to really push our stories, and our points of view, validates us as people. And so, I'd love for future filmmakers to put their stories out there and embrace their voices. And for audiences in general, I'd love for them to empathize and understand what it is to be someone of color. Because I think that through media and filmmaking, that's the easiest way to understand what it is to be that person, and to break open minds. And also, to just have a blast! To laugh, and cry, and be scared!

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Madres - Ryan Zaragoza (Bebe, Just Beyond)

"Beto (Tenoch Huerta) and Diana (Ariana Guerra), a young Mexican-American couple expecting their first child, move to a small town in 1970s California where Beto has been offered a job managing a farm. Isolated from the community and plagued by confusing nightmares, Diana explores the rundown company ranch where they reside, finding a grisly talisman and a box containing the belongings of the previous residents. Her discoveries will lead her to a truth much stranger and more terrifying than she could have possibly imagined."

I'll admit that I was surprised to learn that much of this story was based on facts. I was unaware of the awful eugenics experiments performed on Mexican women in the 1970s. When did you first learn about that history?

I actually share the same experience that you had. I didn't know about this until I read the script. And I try to stay pretty informed about these types of things, about my culture, and stuff that has happened historically to people that come from my background. And this was something that I hadn't heard of. When I read the script, I knew that this was an opportunity to shed light on it and also give voices to the women who were impacted by the real-life horror.

This is your first feature film, so I'm curious how you came aboard Madres. Were you looking for a script that spoke to you, or did Blumhouse reach out to you?

Blumhouse sent this to me. They knew that I have an interest in starting conversations with an audience that doesn't really get spoken or communicated to. I think representation is a big thing for me. I've always wanted to help create a conversation with this community. My background is grounded in craft and strong filmmaking techniques that I appreciate. So, when I saw that this film takes place in the '70s and is a story full of interesting tension and spooky elements, I knew that I could do something with it. It also gave me an opportunity to work on my own visual language of things and figure out how I'm going to deliver these stories.

I really appreciated the fact that you're dealing with this absolutely horrible true history but are infusing these supernatural elements in it. What was your thought process for balancing those elements?

I think there was a lot to draw on, just the natural conflict of the main character Diana (Ariana Guerra) going into a community where she feels out of place and the complications she has in her marriage. Having all of that as the background to a supernatural element that starts to appear in her life was fun to explore and look at the different perspectives in a culture. There's no one true horror here, it's a combination of things. What seems safe is not often the case, and those types of stories are always so interesting to me, so it was fun to work with in Madres.

I'm interested to hear you speak a bit about Diana and her parents not teaching Spanish, which forces her to exist outside of the culture. It's a unique and appreciated angle of representation in terms of having Mexican identity yet still being outside of it because of language.

I'm glad you connected with that. That's one thing that I'm interested in exploring in all my work; talking about ideas that I've had growing up, and especially about my culture and how I fit into it. There's this idea that speaking Spanish defines you as Mexican or Latin, or whatever background you come from. I was drawn to the idea that one partner doesn't speak Spanish that well, while for the other, it's their first language. So, when we were prepping for the film and would do these blocking sessions a lot of times we would just not work on that. [Laughs.] We would talk about the story, and our own perspective on these issues. We had so many people who had different perspectives, Tenoch [Huerta] from Mexico, Ariana, who's second generation Mexican-American, and cinematographer Felipe [Vara de Rey] who's a Spaniard. We all had these different takes on what language means to a culture and how it's used to marginalize people within a culture, and how it's used to divide people. And when we started having those conversations, I saw a real opportunity to bring that dialogue into scenes that we already had and create new comments that hopefully can speak to an audience aware of those problems, and those like yourself, who aren't.

Were there any specific influences in the horror genre or outside of that?

The films that I really dove into were Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Shining, Jaws. All of them have a very distinct visual language that's unique to the director. But they also have a lot of similarities. If you watch them and see the way they communicate, the way they move the camera, the blocking that they do, it's a style. I wanted to be part of it. Kubrick has a very, very high place in my world. And I tried to pay homage to him and all these filmmakers while doing our own thing and creating our own style.

The central theme of this iteration of Welcome to the Blumhouse is community. What's the impression you want to leave and the virtues and horrors of community from Madres?

Community can be a great thing and a very isolating thing. I think Madres explores both sides of that where it's important to embrace your community, but the community itself has to embrace the people who are looking to join it and the people who don't even know that they should join it or want to. There's this very organic thing in our film that we explore which is finding a place within the world and that's a universal concept for a lot of people. There's always this search for belonging, and our film very much speaks to that.

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The Manor - Axelle Carolyn (The Haunting of Bly Manor, Creepshow, The Midnight Club)

"A malevolent force preys upon the residents of a sleepy nursing home in The Manor, a gothic tale of terror with a modern twist. When a mild stroke diminishes her ability to care for herself, Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) moves to Golden Sun Manor, an assisted living facility with a sterling reputation. But despite the best efforts of the staff, and a budding friendship with fellow senior Roland (Bruce Davison), strange occurrences and nightmarish visions convince Judith that a sinister presence is haunting the massive estate. As residents begin to die mysteriously, Judith's frantic warnings are dismissed as fantasy. Even her devoted grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) thinks her fears are the result of dementia, not demons. With no one willing to believe her, Judith must either escape the confines of the manor, or fall victim to the evil that dwells within it."

As someone who has seen grandparents go into nursing homes, I thought this film was a really interesting and honest exploration. I'm curious about how this project developed for you.

Thank you. Same thing. I had a granddad who ended up being in a nursing home. And then my dad, almost at the same time, went in almost a year later. He was pretty young, but he had dementia. So, visiting those nursing homes is striking. Even if you think you're prepared for it, there's something about being confronted with the last part of someone's life, it is very clear why they're there, and I had to process that somehow. I like to put that stuff into writing, but it's something that stayed with me for a very long time. And then, at the same time, as much as it's thematically relevant, it's also a great setting for a horror movie because you're vulnerable, and you're not believed, and you can't get out. There's so much about it that is conspiring to make you susceptible to the supernatural.

I have to ask, what was it like working with a legend like Barbara Hershey?

[Laughs]. Thankfully, she doesn't behave like she's a legend! She's pretty awesome! Obviously, she brings all that stuff to the part that's very grounded, very serious, very focused and dramatic. But she's also kind of hilarious. It's funny when I look back because I don't know if we got on that well in the first few days. It was hard to learn to trust each other and learn how to speak the same language. And then there was a point, I don't know what happened I don't know how to explain it where we were both like, 'oh, this is who you are!' And then, from that point on, the last four weeks of the shoot, we had a long shoot, were a blast. We had so much fun. And I love the way that she works, and I love that trust she had in me, and that sometimes she would argue with me about choices that I wanted to make. She would push back but also allow me to do a take the way I wanted. And she would trust me enough to use the right beats. I think it takes a lot for an actor to have that kind of faith in a director. Because at the end of the day, I make of the performance what I want, because I'm in the editing room and they're not there. I think there's something about that that actors just need to relinquish. And the fact that she did that is quite wonderful.

I know the other films were shot in Louisiana. Was this one also shot there?

No, mine was shot in L.A. So, mine was actually shot for the first batch of Welcome to the Blumhouse movies. So, we shot it two years ago now, in October and November of 2019. So thankfully, before the pandemic, because if it had been during the pandemic, it would have been impossible with all the elderly people under one roof. Could you imagine insuring that movie? [Laughs.] But it was the second one to be shot, so the first two were shot in L.A. and everything else was New Orleans.

I love your episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes."

Thank you!

Thinking about that episode and this film, I think you're a filmmaker who really rewards patience. There's never a moment where I'm not invested, but there's always a sense that you're building towards something major. As both the writer and director of this film, is that sense of pacing something you immediately see on the page as you're writing, or is it something that comes together when you get behind the camera?

Thank you for saying that. That's really nice. Yeah, I guess that I am attracted to slow burns in some ways. I just really like movies that are led by characters. You have to learn who the character is before you get into any of the horror, because it just doesn't make any sense to start one before the other. But that's always kind of hard to write, and I'm always excited to write scary things, and I tend to jump to that a little too quickly sometimes [Laughs.] But finding the right pacing is ideally something you find on the page, but it's always something you have to find again in post-production and molding it in the edit, making it into what it should be. And sometimes, the fixes when it feels like it's too slow can be simple. Like we added this opening credits sequence at the beginning just to give people a flavor of what's coming. So, we're building up to something and saying, 'hey, just hang in there! There's stuff coming later that we're just hinting at.' Another thing I really like to do is drop little hints about what's going on that will pay off later on. Like the hairbrush or the tree. A lot of that is in the opening sequence, and if people pay attention to that, those elements will pay off a little bit better.

As someone who began as a horror journalist, and I'm sure has seen so many horror films, were there any direct influences that were in your mind while doing The Manor?

Yeah. One of the ones, and I always feel weird saying this because show me a filmmaker who hasn't been influenced by Rosemary's Baby, but it's true. [Laughs.] That was a big influence. It does a lot of the things that I wanted to do with The Manor in terms of the gaslighting, the losing control of yourself, other people taking control of your life. And then you have the supernatural, but it's grafted onto a real-life fear that's more terrifying than the creature or anything supernatural going on. I also wanted to make sure the movie wasn't depressing or too dark. I still wanted it to be an entertaining supernatural mystery, and so I always tend to go more gothic. You've seen Bly Manor, so you know I am a huge fan of gothic horror. So those were also the kinds of influences I had. Sleepy Hollow, Legend of Hell House, The Haunting, and Hammer films, where they're all visually a little more out there, made a strong impression. Even in terms of the house we picked for this, it's not the typical nursing home. It's a little more unusual. It's called Stimson House, it's in L.A. The location scout and production manager did an amazing job.

Since this was filmed for the first iteration of Welcome to the Blumhouse, it fits in with the core themes of family and parenting in those installments, but also with the themes of community in this second iteration. What do you think is the takeaway about community in The Manor?

It's interesting because for both seasons of Welcome to the Blumhouse we figured out what the themes were after we made them. I think there's something about any space that feels institutionalized, like a nursing home, or a church, that is always bringing you comfort and doing the opposite. There's always a very dark side to any time you find yourself in a community. A community can be something you kind of choose, but it's not like a group of friends, so there's always something else you find yourself a part of. I keep thinking of Midsommar and how beautifully that idea was explored in that movie, and how she finds her people and community, but there's this dark side where you have to lose yourself to it. So, I think that's how I think about community in The Manor.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bingo Hell, Black as Night, Madres, and The Manor, are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Click below to watch now: