After racking up a long list of credits including Puppet Killer and Funhouse as an actress and another long list of shorts and TV shows as a writer and director Gigi Saul Guerrero has made her first feature, Bingo Hell. Directing a script she co-wrote with long-time collaborator Shane McKenzie (El Gigante, Mistress of Bones) and Perry Blackshear (They Look Like People, When I Consume You).
Oak Springs is a neighbourhood in crisis, long-time residents are leaving and businesses are closing and being replaced by vape shops and hipster coffee joints. Lupita (Adriana Barraza, Drag Me to Hell, Rambo: Last Blood) has lived here for what seems like forever and has no use for things like vape shops, she prefers her cigars and hanging out at the bingo hall with her friends like Clarence (Grover Coulson, A Ghost Story, Gallows Road) and Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Net).
So when Mr. Big (Richard Brake, Feedback, Tremors: Shrieker Island) buys the bingo hall and turns it into a casino, she gets mad. When her friends start winning money only to die shortly after, she decides to get even.
When I first heard about Bingo Hell I thought it was going to be something along the lines of VFW, and a publicity shot of a shotgun-wielding Lupita certainly didn’t do anything to change my mind. But, despite the camera lingering on a pair of old bullet wounds in her back when we first see her, that’s not the case. Instead, Bingo Hell is more along the lines of Stephen King’s Needful Things or Wes Craven’s Invitation to Hell, a supernatural fable about the destruction of a community by someone claiming to give its residents what they want most. And in the impoverished barrio of Oak Springs, that would be money.
It’s that focus on the community that is both Bingo Hell’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. After a delightfully macabre opening, the film bogs down in the various dramas of the town’s residents. Things like Dolores’ conflicts with her daughter-in-law Raquel (Kelly Murtagh, Shapeless, First Man on Mars) and troubled grandson Caleb (Joshua Caleb Johnson, Black-ish, The Good Lord Bird). They do help define the characters and eventually give their struggle a sense of urgency.
But they take the film’s focus for too much of the film’s first half without much to remind us that we’re watching what is supposed to be a horror movie. And for all the time they take, we really only get to know Dolores and Lupita. The others are given some depth, but not enough to make the eventual spate of deaths resonate as much as they should.
In the case of Bingo Hell’s villain though, over the top is exactly what’s called for and Richard Brake delivers it in spades and really makes the movie. From the moment you see his big black car you know, he’s no good. And although it’s never explicitly stated, as soon as you see his grinning face you know he’s the Devil incarnate. And, in a subtle touch, the “G” on the casino’s sign is more than a little reminiscent of a hammer and sickle.
Overall, Bingo Hell is an acceptable, but unexceptional film. There’s enough slime, blood and jump scares to make it worth a watch. From a technical standpoint, it’s well done, but like many directors making the transition from shorts to features, Guerrero has issues with the film’s pacing that pull it down and make the first half drag somewhat.