Fantastic Fest: When a Bingo Hall Becomes Bingo Hell
Granny get yer gun
Gigi Saul Guerrero loves a small-town horror romp. Her previous film for Blumhouse, Culture Shock (a part of Hulu's holiday-themed anthology series Into the Dark), followed a young Mexican woman's journey illegally crossing into the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. Her dream unfolds into a nightmare when she gets stuck in a Pleasantville-esque border town with a candy-colored exterior that masks a much more sinister plot.
Guerrero is returning to Fantastic Fest (where she previously screened her short "El Gigante" in 2015) with Bingo Hell, a "Welcome to the Blumhouse" romp that follows a group of senior citizens whose lives are disrupted when a treasured bingo hall is gentrified.
"There's just something about smaller towns. My family, we come from Mexico City, but just outside our city it's all smaller communities, smaller towns. It's a lot more laid back," Guerrero said. "People just love what they have rather than always looking for 'What's the next best thing?' It's just about cherishing and embracing what you have, and I think the personalities come so different in smaller towns. And there's something about that that I personally really love."
Bingo Hell gushes Guerrero's musings on how small towns "cherish and embrace" what they have. The film's leads are Lupita (Adriana Barraza) and Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), two elderly women who have gone through hell and back to keep their communities and families safe and comfortable. Lupita's distress over a hipster coffee shop opening up a few blocks away from her home oozes into anxieties about change, the fear of losing the community she's helped build for decades.
"I think all of us at some point have witnessed or lived gentrification in some way, shape, or form," Guerrero said. "We have seen seniors being taken advantage of in so many ways, even from as little as prank calling them, those scams, to gentrification when they don't have the control. ... Once bigger corporations come in, what do you do?"
When Mr. Big (Richard Brake) acquires the barrio of Oak Springs' beloved bingo hall and turns it into a flashy win-big casinolike gimmick, Lupita is distraught. The cheap-looking neon-soaked hall seduces new faces, all who want to earn quick cash to escape the city for something greater.
"I think of greed being the second theme that's very heavy and prominent in this movie," Guerrero noted. "I think both of those go hand in hand, gentrification and greed, in some way. And what better way to do it in a town that is being updated without the town wanting it to be that way?"
Mr. Big is the personification of this greed. Lanky, white, and with a skeletal grin, his lure is enticing – and deadly.
"We wanted to have him be still humanized as the villain, but really a true representation of greed, and somebody that is a true representation of everybody's darkest moment and everybody's darkest side, which these characters that fall for it have very prominently. Even Mr. Big in the movie says, 'They say money can't buy you happiness. I disagree.' It is one of those things ... all of us at one point do fall for that. All of us at one point do feel a certain level of desperation and anxiety, wanting a better life in some way, wanting a better outcome, wanting a better future. So, it is playing with all these characters' deepest, biggest desires," Guerrero said.
Guerrero also used Bingo Hell to dive into the nostalgia of her youth. In a sense, senior citizens are as malleable as children in a screenplay; they're unlikely heroes, which nurtures a playfulness reminiscent of Goosebumps. Talking about Bingo Hell's slime and gooey gore brings out a joviality in Guerrero. "I really was excited to bring a film that just feels fun. ... That escapism was a really important thing we wanted to bring to the film, and what better with the most stubborn, stubborn cute people out there, the seniors?"
One of Guerrero's best days on set involved a fountain of blood cascading onto actor Grover Coulson, who plays Clarence. "I love practical effects. It's so much fun. Going back to Evil Dead days is just how to do it," she exclaimed. "I remember telling the special effects team, I said, 'All right, guys. I like a lot of blood, so I really want to spray it a lot.' They're like, 'Gigi, we cranked it over the limit, so we think it'll work.' So, I tell [Coulson], 'Make sure you keep your eyes closed.' And three, two ... that thing was a fountain ... everyone's shoes, there was a few people with white shoes that day. I had zero sympathy. They should've known. They should've known."
However, the sweetest reveal about Guerrero's film is that Bingo Hell was conceived with someone very close to her in mind. "Lupita is an exact interpretation of my grandma," Guerrero fondly mentions when discussing her film's beginnings. "She knows that I based a character on her. She has no idea it's the lead character, and that it's her favorite actress, Adriana Barraza. ... I can't wait for that reaction when she sees it. She's going to freak out."
Bingo Hell screens on Friday, Sept. 24 at 7pm at the Alamo South Lamar, and debuts on Amazon prime Oct. 1.