Horror movies often function as a conduit for examining social issues, but how many social issues can one movie take? Bingo Hell puts that capacity to the test. Its scattershot thematic approach can be summarised as an overall consideration of greed, but it gets there through a handful of major prongs that don’t really speak to each other, and don’t make a huge amount of sense on their own. The hyperactive filmmaking of director Gigi Saul Guerrero leaves it somewhere between comedy and horror, which can also be a fruitful place to land, except not in this case.
The story in this latest instalment of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series would appear to be a complaint against gentrification and its effects on the character of a neighbourhood. That neighbourhood is the fictitious Oak Springs, and as de facto matriarch Lupita (Adriana Barraza) goes on her rounds, she thumbs her nose at the variety of fancy coffee shops and homeopathic healing centres that suggest her precious community is being lost to the hipsters. Since we all recognise the underlying drawbacks of gentrification, even if we ourselves are participating in it, this has the makings of a perfectly satisfying little send-up of socioeconomic transition.
Except the focus shifts to a villainous figurehead who is anything but a hipster. That’s a strange newcomer and dead ringer for David Carradine, who has bought the local bingo hall frequented by Lupita and her friends for a little harmless light gambling. He’s known only as Mr. Big (Richard Brake), he’s got a license plate that reads BIGWINNER, and he’s a lot more of a Vegas huckster charlatan than a latte-sipping yoga enthusiast. His grin drips with menace, and when the bingo hall gets about a thousand percent upgrade, so do the cash prizes. Soon the whole town is in thrall of this satanic game show host and his offerings of a better life.
Of course, winning $10,000 – that’s just the starting point for the new prize structure – is not without its immediate deleterious effects. The winners, hand-picked from the characters we’ve already met, don’t have a lot of time to spend their winnings before their greed and toxic personality manifest in self-destruction. Mr. Big is over their shoulder as the blood flies.
Okay, that’s two prongs. But then there’s a third, which is that greed is not the only sin being punished here. One character, who is not the winner of a cash prize and in fact not even a customer of the bingo hall, is forced to confront his prior heroin addiction by jamming a hypodermic needle into his neck. Just what exactly are the parameters of Mr. Big’s influence, and what is he trying to say?
It would be nice if there were an answer for that. And with just a little bit of an answer, Guerrero’s film might have gone from miss to hit, its in-your-face visual approach coming off as a strength rather than a distraction. Guerrero should be commended for not just going with the naturalistic approach favoured by most of the directors whom executive producer Jason Blum has given a little bit of money to make one of these movies. She’s got filters, she’s got smash cuts, she’s got fish-eye lenses. An intentionally garish visual scheme can make both the comedy and the horror a bit more loony, and that can really work if it’s in concert with the rest of what’s going on.
Really, though, we never gets the sense that the other sixtysomethings Lupita pals around with are good matches for this material. Some of them flirt with selling out. Most are just trying to run their businesses and enjoy a little bingo. The suggestion is that Mr. Big is there to exploit their weaknesses and teach them a lesson to be careful what they wish for, but these don’t strike us as fatally flawed people who deserve comeuppance. Greed clouds the minds of even good people, I suppose.
Genre enthusiasts will enjoy some gruesome moments, including one in which a woman claws away chunks of her own skin, and another where a man force feeds himself bingo balls, which have the sickening crunching sound of plastic potato chips. These instincts serve Guerrero well. They would work better if they could be streamlined into a consistent horror movie structure, with its succession of thematically linked kills.
Bingo Hell is not a success, but it does remind us what Blum is doing right with this series. Instead of releasing a tired parade of slasher films with beautiful young people as the leads, which has been his calling card as a horror auteur, Blum is giving us something a bit quirkier with the Welcome to the Blumhouse movies. Empowering senior citizens to try to fight off an infiltration of evil in their community, one personified by the grin of a demented clown, is a lot more interesting than the bland alternative, and for that Bingo Hell should be commended. Swinging and missing is better than not swinging at all.
Bingo Hell is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.