‘Bingo Hell’ is the story of a bingo hall, a close-knit neighborhood and the evil forces threatening to tear it apart. Its locale, the town of Oak Springs, is a work of fiction. But evil forces aside, there’s something eerily familiar about its streets, and its people.
Gigi Saul Guerrero (director of last year’s thrilling short, ‘Mistress of Bones’) is adept at crafting a world of characters that feel rich and familiar — it’s why she’s one of the most exciting directors in the horror realm right now. In her latest film, ‘Bingo Hell,’ however, the underdeveloped connective tissue between those characters makes for a wobbly feature overall.
The hero of ‘Bingo Hell,’ is a promising one. Grounded by a lovely performance from Adriana Barraz (‘Drag Me to Hell,’ ‘Babel’) a woman named Lupita serves as the matron of Oak Springs. Those of us in the Mexican-American community might know the type of woman very intimately: no nonsense, incredibly bighearted. You know — one of the ladies who bets quarters and gets overly competitive at loteria but also knows the most miraculous way to get stains out of cloth napkins.
Lupita has a group of friends in the senior citizen community who go to bingo together, and make their neighborhood their pride and joy. She holds Oak Springs together. But Oak Springs is being swiftly gentrified, and the beloved community bingo hall is no exception to the new invasion of “hipster shit.” (I thought we were past the point of overpriced lattes and beanie-wearing bros being played for laughs, but here we are.) When the local bingo hall goes under new management — by a diabolical, mystical maniac named Mr. Big — it’s Lupita that must come to the rescue.
‘Bingo Hell’ is pointing to several social issues here. And the portrait of community, and what it means to be in one, is touching, but ultimately gets irreparably muddled when Mr. Big (Richard Brake) enters the scene. He’s an intriguing villain, for sure. He’s like a twisted Master of Ceremonies, all neon lights and hypnotic monologues, stamping bingo-goers with a red dollar sign, tempting them with cash then snarling that “everyone’s a winner.” Then, of course, those “winners” take off with their prizes and suffer gruesome deaths that include gooey, slimey stuff.
The logic of the story — written by Perry Blackshear, Gigi Saul Guerrero, and Shane McKenzie — is confusing, and remains so for the rest of ‘Bingo Hell’’s 80-minute runtime. The question that lingers is: what exactly does Mr. Big want? Does he want to eliminate the people of Oak Springs so the whole town can be swallowed up by gentrification? Is he punishing them for being tempted by the promise of “escape your small town” fantasies? By that logic, ‘Bingo Hell’ might be telling us to never leave our small towns because the people in them are so special and outside temptations are bad.
On top of that, the muddiness of the “evil forces” and their purpose do an immense disservice to the character of Lupita, our neighborhood matron, our hero. It’s this failure of Lupita that is the film’s biggest offense. Most of the people in the town are so easily swept away into Mr. Big’s wicked grasp that they inexplicably refuse to help Lupita take him down until the very end. In so many words, their excuses mostly amount up to “I have my own life to worry about” and “You’re bonkers, lady.” For someone who’s painted as being so loved and respected in the community, they sure don’t give her a lot of credit. Eventually, the community comes together to help destroy Mr. Big as they break out of the unexplained spell he’s put them under.
You could wade through the mixed messaging and say the moral of the story is that coming together is key to a thriving community. Or you could say that the moral of the story is that valuing tradition and your elders should never be lost amongst the bells and whistles of the latest bingo hall or coffee shop.
Or you could say, “don’t think so hard about it, it’s a horror comedy.” But as ‘Bingo Hell’ is attempting, social commentary is at the root of most horror. And I’d argue that it only makes sense if we’re fully following through with it. Otherwise, you’re just left with one gooey mess.
‘Bingo Hell,’ directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero, is now streaming on Amazon Prime as part of its ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ series.