[Fantastic Fest Review] ‘Bingo Hell’ Champions Unlikely Heroes in Splatstick Horror-Comedy With Heart

by Susan Ryant

Lupita ( Adriana Barraza ) isn’t your average horror heroine. She’s a firecracker, for sure, but she’s also someone whose hot-tempered reputation precedes her. Lupita’s pissed off about encroaching gentrification, but beneath this abuelita’s abrasive exterior lies a passionate woman desperate to hold onto her dying community. Lupita is the precise type of heroine you want in your corner when a Faustian figure rolls into town, leaving a goopy trail of carnage in his wake. In other words, Bingo Hell  grounds its gory excess with humor, heart, and a collection of unlikely heroes.

Mr. Big (Richard Brake) rolls into town, buys out Oak Springs’ old bingo hall, and transforms it into a flashy Casino-like place. The prize winnings are instantly life-changing, seducing new faces. Money can indeed buy happiness, but only in the briefest sense. Lupita, along with her long-time best friend Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), realizes their little ramshackle community is at stake- and so are their lives.

Director  Gigi Saul Guerrero , who co-wrote the script with  Perry Blackshear  and  Shane McKenzie , uses greed and gentrification as the driving force behind this horror comedy. Guerrero gets us acclimated to the lives of Oak Springs and the ways the dying community hinders their lives before layering in horror. Lupita’s social circle is already tiny, and age means the constant threat of shrinking the circle even further. It’s the unique characters that pull you in before the arrival of Mr. Big.

Brake is a perpetual scene-stealer, and giving him the role of the central villain lets him shine. Mr. Big is charismatic yet slimy and sinister, a role that allows Brake to cut loose. With such a larger-than-life performance, the potential for Brake to steal the entire film exists. But Barraza and Caldwell’s take no prisoners attitude and grit never let him. The pair of elderly heroines match Brake’s energy with ferocity.

Where Guerrero shows surprising restraint is in the horror in the third act. There’s plenty of slime, goo, and bloodletting, but it never entirely goes for broke in the way  Bingo Hell  consistently teases. Guerrero peppers in plenty of gore-soaked kills or gruesome body horror moments along the path to a final confrontation, but when that moment comes, it fizzles, and the core threat can’t match the power of the buildup. Perhaps because Guerrero focuses instead on the character’s losses and triumphs over the horror, but the finale loses some energy all the same.

Bingo Hell  introduces a surprising cast of characters that rarely if ever, get to shine in a horror movie. Even with all the muck of greed and gore, Lupita’s journey of discovering what a community truly means is heartwarming, but her fighting spirit brings the laughs. Brake may make for a compelling horror antagonist, reliably so, but this is Lupita’s turf, and it’s Barraza’s movie. That Bingo Hell approaches its fiery heroine and her friends with such tenderness does undermine the splatstick horror elements in part, especially in the climax. Even still, Guerrero gives a familiar Faustian bargain premise a new goopy, gory, and often entertaining coat of paint.

Bingo Hell releases on Amazon Prime on October 1, 2021.