For over a decade now, Blumhouse Productions has specialized in making small budget films, mostly horror, that give their directors creative control and usually make a profit. Sometimes a huge profit. Their first big hit was Paranormal Activity. Made in 2009 on a shoestring budget of $15,000, it went on to make some $193 million worldwide. Since then, their budgets have increased, but not by that much. For instance, Glass had a budget of $20 million but considering it was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, stars Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, and Samuel L. Jackson amongst other A-listers, and is the sequel to the very successful Unbreakable (which itself had a budget of $75 million in 2000), that's a small price to pay. And that's one of the biggest budgets any Blumhouse film has had.
The secret to Blumhouse's success lies in the horror genre. Fans of horror are not the most discerning bunch. Give us a few jump scares, buckets of blood, and perhaps a few attractive stars and we'll line up around the block. They often hire up-and-coming directors who have something to prove and no-name actors who will work for cheap. With the tiny budgets, the films are almost guaranteed to make a profit and even when they don't, the losses are small. Add in a few big hits and the company has maintained a success level most studios would kill get have.
It is a business plan ripped from the Roger Corman playbook. He made similar genre films with tiny budgets, gave directors free rein, and gave directors such as Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron their start. Not every film was great, or even good, well ok most of them were terrible, but he certainly had a large impact on the history of cinema. Blumhouse is having a similar impact.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned anything about the quality of the content. In truth, most Blumhouse films have been critically derided. I've not seen very many of their films but if this new 10-film collection of his films entitled Blumhouse of Horrors is any indication I'd say they are a mixed bag at best.
The Purge (2013)
In the near future, America is plagued by endless and violent crime. As a way to help solve this, the "New Founding Fathers" have created The Purge, a 12-hour period one night a year in which nearly all crime including murder is legal. The thought being that everyone will get the violence out of their system during this one night and for the rest of the year, they will be calm and law-abiding. It works; crime has dropped significantly and unemployment is at 1%.
The film is set several years into this concept and focuses on one family the Sandins. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a salesman of high-end security systems. As The Purge is about to begin, he and his family settle in for what they believe will be a safe night in their fancy home in their gated community. Just as the large metal security plates close securely around the doors and windows, a lone black man runs into the street screaming for help. Charlie Sandin (Max Burkholder) has pity on the man, unlocks the security system, and lets the man inside. Soon after, a group of young white people show up at the house demanding the Sandins let the man go so they can purge him. If they don't, then the group will break into the house and kill everybody.
The Purge is an interesting idea for a horror film, at least if you don't think about the real-world repercussions for more than two seconds. Unfortunately, they do very little world-building and very quickly it turns into a fairly generic, "house under siege" film. It takes a couple of light swings at social commentary (the poor are the ones being murdered in the purge while the rich live in their fancy, secured mansions) but its heart isn't really into it. The opening and ending credits flash newsreel footage giving us a sense of the scope of the Purge, but the film itself concentrates on the one family. In the end, it's a decent enough little thriller that I wish could have been so much more. They say the sequels open it up a bit so maybe I'll check those out.
Debbie Galardi (Shelley Hennig) commits suicide one night, but her friends believe something more nefarious is going on. Her friend Laine (Olivia Cook) finds an old Ouji board that she used with Debbie when they were kids. The gang decides to use it again in hopes of contacting Debbie in the afterlife to find out what really happened. They do contact a spirit but instead of being their friend, it is actually a malevolent demon. One by one, the teenagers get knocked off by the evil ghost. It is a race against time for Laine to figure out how to stop it.
Watching these ten films from Blumhouse, I found that many of them are based on already well-known ideas that are in the public domain or have never been copyrighted. Where others are paying big bucks for existing IP, Blumhouse is getting on the cheap. It must have seemed like a good idea to base a movie around an Ouija board. According to Wikipedia, there have been three other films with that title made outside of this franchise. But as it turns out basing your film around a game made by Parker Brothers, and one that only involves players placing their hands on a piece of plastic with a clear circle in the middle that gets moved around to spell out words, doesn't naturally lend itself to an interesting story. Besides a couple of jump scares this movie is not only dumb but also rather boring. Not a good thing in a low-budget horror flick.
The Boy Next Door (2015)
Jennifer Lopez stars as Claire Peterson in this thriller that does a gender switch on films like Fatal Attraction. She's recently split from her cheating husband (John Corbett) and now lives alone with her young son (Ian Nelson) while teaching classic literature at the local high school. When Noah (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door to help his grandfather, Claire can't help but like his kind heart (and his glistening abs). When he befriends her socially awkward son, she likes him even more (his abs are pretty nice too). When he gives a Wikipedia-friendly plot summary of The Illiad and makes small talk about Shakespeare and Byron, she nearly swoons (did I mention he has nice abs too?). Soon enough, he's ripping off his shirt and saying things like "no rules, just judgments, just us" and well, how can a significantly older, totally hot school teacher resist?
But when the deed is done, those abs suddenly seem a lot less glistening then they were before. Claire reconsiders and tells Noah their sexy funtime was a one-time thing. He says something like "not so fast" then precedes to stalk her, graffiti the bathroom walls with news about their relationship, and print out a thousand copies of photos secretly taken of their tryst on her school printer. Things go downhill from there. But does it all end in a blood-soaked fight to the death in a burning barn while Claire shoves an epi-pen into Noah's eyeball? Yes, yes it does.
The Boy Next Door deserves every bit of derision it received from critics. It is a terrible film. Really everything you need to know about it can be found in Linda Holmes' excellent take-down of the film's trailer.
A group of friends notices an unknown person has joined their Skype chat. This stranger doesn't have a video feed and doesn't say anything so they at first figure its a glitch. But then they start getting weird Facebook messages from Laura, a friend of theirs who committed suicide one year earlier. Before you know it, "Laura" has invaded all of their computers and begins playing a deadly game where they must admit their darkest secrets or be brutally murdered.
The gimmick to Unfriended is that we only see what's on the computer screen of one of the characters. It's like staring at a desktop computer for 83 minutes. It is impressive that the filmmakers stuck to that as there is never a moment when we see anything else. At the same time, I have to admit that becomes a bit tiresome after a while. I did appreciate how it shows how people present themselves differently to different people online. When the film begins, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), whose computer it is we're watching, is viewing the video of Laura's suicide and the embarrassing video that led to that death. When her boyfriend jumps in, she shuts those videos down immediately. Later when "Laura" shows up, Blaire deletes her own internet history of having watched those videos. It is a neat detail in an otherwise fairly unadventurous movie.
The Visit (2015)
While many of the films in this collection are from unknown directors, the studio does periodically allow well-known people to helm their films and star in them. The Visit is one of two films in this collection directed by M. Night Shyamalan whose star may have dimmed quite a bit since his sensational debut The Sixth Sense, but he's still a well-known director whose films consistently make a profit.
The Visit has two kids, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a precocious teenager who wants to be a filmmaker, and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), visiting their grandparents, whom they have never met. The grandparents are nice at first, but rather odd. Over the course of the week, they get increasingly strange, scary, and possibly violent.
I'd pretty much given up on Shyamalan after The Village, but this film is good enough to make me at least think about reconsidering. There is plenty of jump scares to be found in The Visit but Shyamalan is a master of filling his films with an uneasy tension. You just know something terrifying is going to happen sooner or later and I couldn't wait to be shocked over and over again. Like a lot of his films, I don't know that it will hold up well to a second viewing, or a lot of critical thought, but in the moment it is an effective bit of horror.
James McAvoy stars in this thriller from M. Night Shyalaman as someone who has numerous personalities living in the same body. He kidnaps three women whom he locks up inside his underground home. There, he prepares them to be sacrificed to "The Beast," a dark personality hidden deep inside him.
The plot acts like a silly TV miniseries from the 1970s, but Shyalaman directs it with his usual reserve. It is a big, dumb film that would make a great drinking game, but McAvoy is clearly having a great time playing all those characters and Anya Taylor-Joy is terrific as one of the girls. A short scene at the end connects it to Unbreakable, setting up the third film, Glass, in what is now known as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele's directorial debut stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington who takes a weekend trip to visit his white girlfriend's parents. He's nervous about the racial difference between them but Rose (Allison Williams) insists that they are cool. Upon arrival, they do seem a little more than ok with his race (and say things like "I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.") and noting they are aware of the not-so-great optics about them having only black servants. But as the weekend moves on, things get weirder and weirder. Rose's mom, Missy (Catherine Keener), secretly hypnotizes him in order to get him to quit smoking (amongst other things). The servents are acting peculiar too, with the maid (a fantastic Betty Gabriel) constantly unplugging his phone and the groundskeeper (Marcus Hendersen) acting overly hostile.
At a party, all the white people keep eyeing him strangely and remarking on his physique while touching his chest or talking about Tiger Woods. By the time the only other black guest (Lakeith Stanfield) tells him to "get out," he's aware that something more than white people being uncomfortable with a black man is occurring. That's when the horror really begins.
Get Out is the rare horror film that is not only quite scary but also funny and whose social message is both thoughtful and well done. As a progressive, middle-class white guy, this film brings to my attention all the little ways in which my own racial prejudices show themselves even as I strive to be more understanding. It is by far the best film in this collection and one of the best films of 2017.
Happy Death Day (2017)
This Groundhog's Day meets Scream black comedy/slasher film is a lot better than it has any right to be. Jessica Rothe is terrific as Tree Gelbman, a narcissistic, sorority mean girl who finds herself murdered at the end of a long day only to wake up having to live that day over again. Live, get murdered, repeat. She has to figure out who the murderer is (and maybe improve herself in the process) in order to stop the cycle. The horror is light and the violence even less so, but it's a lot of fun and Rothe really is wonderful. She keeps the myriad of story problems from overwhelming the viewer.
Truth Or Dare (2018)
A group of college kids rent a scary house for Halloween and play a game of Truth or Dare. Before they can spill any juicy secrets, the game or the house or something is spilling their guts for real. The cards are filled out for them, asking each character to do increasingly horrible things to themselves and if they refuse, the demon or whatever does it to them.
That's not a bad concept for a horror film, actually, but the film does very little with it. They are only twice asked to do a "truth" card and all of the "dares" are pretty generic horror movie tropes (pull our a tooth, burn your hand on the stove). For a brief moment, the film pretends the dares line up with some previous bad behavior but it pretty quickly loses that thread for some more generic bloodletting. Heather Langencamp shows up at one point, having lived through the game many years ago. That's a fun call back to horror movies from my generation, but the rest of the film doesn't deserve her.
Teenager Maggie (Diana Silvers) moves with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) back to Ohio after a failed marriage. Maggie quickly makes friends with several classmates who bond over underage drinking. Due to their ages, they have to hang outside the convenience store begging adults to buy them booze. One night, they talk Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) into the booze buying. A few nights later, she buys them some more but says she is uncomfortable giving the liquor to them outside the store. Instead, she invites them to her house where they can party in the basement and not spend their evening drunk driving. Soon enough, Sue Ann (or Ma to her new friends) is throwing school-wide parties every night. But Ma has a dark side and when the kids stop showing up every night, she starts being needy, then nefarious, and then outright crazy.
Octavia Spencer gives a full-throttle performance giving Ma a more nuanced and layered characterization than what was likely in the script. She's sweet, then weird, then completely bonkers and back again. The back half of the film gives her some horrifying motivation that seems counter-intuitive to the first half, turning an interesting film into a more standard horror flick. I actually found Maggie and Erica's relationship more interesting than anything going on at Ma's house. I'd love to see a film starring those two just trying to put their lives back together after leaving their small town for California and failing.
Each movie in this set has clearly been ported over from their individual releases. The AV presentations and extras are nothing new. They come in a large plastic case with each disk held by a slim plastic page that will likely break after a few uses. The ten films are some of Blumhouse's most popular releases, but it is definitely a very mixed bag. The best films (Get Out, Happy Death Day, Split) are well worth your time, but the worst ones (The Boy Next Door, Ouiji) definitely weight it down. The thing I've discovered about Blumhouse is that even their worst films are well made. Those tiny budgets never show in the production values.
It retails at just under $70 making it a good bargain for ten Blu-rays, but it's really going to depend on how many of these films you enjoy and how concerned you are with the physical presentation. But if you've got a horror hound on your Christmas list and you don't know what to get them, this would make a nice little gift.