Halloween is approaching — which means it’s Welcome to the Blumhouse time. A collaboration between Jason Blum’s production company Blumhouse and Amazon Prime, these collaborations consists of two double features, courtesy of four different directors, all under one branded umbrella. The inaugural quartet dropped in October 2020; the second edition was released over two weekends earlier this month. It’s an ambitious way for the Hollywood horror juggernaut to expand its scare-centric empire. To understand what these projects are doing, however, we need to understand a bit about where they come from.
The studio’s eponymous founder built the house of Blum by making smart, cheap bets on horror movies that had the potential to reap massive returns thanks to low overhead. After shelling out a preposterously small sum, the company released Paranormal Activity in 2007 and ended up with one of the biggest numerical success stories of all time. Combine the economics of franchises like Insidious and The Purge with a few savvy bets — notably the Oscar-winning Whiplash and the paradigm-shifting Get Out — and you have yourself an industry darling that’s synonymous with scaring asses into seats. And as TV has reached cinematic levels of prestige and captured the attention of audiences reluctant to leave their home screens, Blumhouse made another smart bet. They decided to engage in branded partnerships with digital players to churn out offerings that aren’t quite TV but aren’t quite feature films, either. First came the anthology series Into the Dark, which presents viewers with a new, holiday-themed entry delivered monthly on Hulu. Then last year, we saw the debut of Welcome to the Blumhouse. (The studio just inked a deal with Epix for more straight-to-service fare, too.)
The Welcome offerings feel like they meant to be a tier above the studio’s previous small-screen endeavors as far as resources provided to filmmakers. But after watching the latest batch, it’s hard to shake the feeling that regardless of their distribution partners, the studio is content to keep its hired gun directors making movies while walking through wet concrete. Really impressive talent has been enlisted to fulfill contractual slots, and like any anthologized endeavor, mileage may vary on the individual results; you could evaluate the merits of each of these eight films and find a few that rise above the pack. But when you scrutinize the project as a whole, it begins to feel like each installment sets directors up to succeed in spite of — not because of — the resources Blumhouse provides. Shooting schedules are short, and directors aren’t guaranteed the ability to pick their own crews. It’s a system made exponentially more frustrating when you look at the apparent dual purpose of this project. Based on the names involved, it seems like the studio considers these TV movies to be an answer to its long-standing diversity problem among its filmmaking roster. In theory that’s neat. In practice, it just exposes the porousness of the proposition.
When you walk into the lobby at Blumhouse, the front room is adorned with framed photos of directors who have made movies for the company. There are few non-white faces, and even fewer women; the stats on out queer filmmakers is similarly slight. Welcome to The Blumhouse, on the other hand, is anything but a bunch of white dudes. The initial 2020 releases were directed by Veena Sud, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., Zu Quirke, and the pair of Elan and Rajeev Dassani. (Osei-Kuffour Jr’s Black Box could stand tot to toe with the best Black Mirror episodes, and Sydney Sweeney marching through a school campus in Quirke’s Nocturne while menacingly gripping a tampon that is oozing blood through her fingers was one of the best things I saw last year full stop!) This time around you’ll find Gigi Saul Guerrero, Maritte Lee Go, Ryan Zaragoza, and Axelle Carolyn behind the lens.
It’s an extremely exciting crop of filmmakers, and regardless of how well any given Welcome selection plays, it’s great to see ensembles of older actors, including stars like Barbara Hershey and Adriana Barazza, chewing scenery in The Manor and Bingo Hell. It’s also heartening to see a Blumhouse product addressing the insidiousness of colorism in Black as Night, a YA-ish vampire tale about gentrification and the state-sanctioned neglect of black folks in New Orleans; and to see the conceit so darkly grim and tragically timeless as the one behind Madres, which follows Mexican farm workers being victimized by racism made manifest in a most gruesome form, was a welcome shift in focus from the vast sea of whiteness typically on display.
Blumhouse specializes in good time horror, and it means a lot for a company with its reach to put its imprimatur on such sensitive and vital topics that embody the daily horrors of real life for so many, and to let filmmakers who represent the people at the heart of their stories be the actual stewards of them. You just wish it felt more like Blumhouse saw these releases as opportunities to invest in and develop burgeoning artists, instead treating them like content streams. There is so much good to be found in these films. So why does the whole endeavor make you wonder what could have been if the company had just a little more faith in what they were doing?
These filmmakers deserve to get credits. They deserve to be Blumhouse-sanctioned horror movie makers, because that carries a lot of currency in this realm. They deserve the releases and the platform that a collaboration with Amazon Prime gives them. But frankly, they also all deserve better. Great directors execute at an elite level regardless of their obstructions. (It’s the chef, not the kitchen, etc.) But when Welcome is the studio’s biggest sign of investment so far in marginalized filmmakers, it signals less that they are serious about these movies as a kind of farm circuit for pipelining directors into features at a Universal Pictures scale and more that they aren’t willing to invest the money and time — for shooting and development — to really let them flex.
It’s true that, but for a select few directors, everyone’s working on slim budgets for Jason Blum. Sequels and IP-based movies do get more money out of the gate. Exceptions might be made for originals from heavies like Leigh Whannell or Christopher Landon, but that’s generally the spending model across the board. The studio doesn’t have anything left to prove in regards to whether or not its system makes profits. But it does have a lot to prove — just as every company putting out film and television in Hollywood does — when it comes to giving a damn about really opening up the entertainment landscape to new voices. For a company that rose to prominence because of its business acumen, it’s baffling that they keep leaving money on the table by giving short shrift to their most consistent showcase so far for diverse talent.
Welcome to the Blumhouse could, and should, be an incredible chance for the studio to break up and coming directors, if only it would put as much care and effort into these works as the filmmakers themselves do. Its under-investment for so long in anyone but a bunch of guys who look like the executive leadership means an over investment in its clear move to change the PR narrative would be a great demonstration of its commitment to these filmmakers beyond a hat tip. It’s a move that would be able to shift the plates of horror once again by committing to a future of equity, which has the pleasant effect of courting new paying customers and helping them compete again as the market leader in fresh ideas. Right now, however, shops like A24 and Neon are eating that lunch unbothered by the house of Blum.
The studio is, of course, a lean enterprise. That’s an intentional decision, and it helps keep the founder’s “don’t lose” philosophy alive in practice. But another benefit to being efficiently sized is that you don’t have to turn at the speed of an aircraft carrier, shedding a century of studio bullshit and baggage just to catch up with the rapidly changing times. The studio has shown a keen ability to not just chase trends in genre but set them, which means it’s time to stop hedging with the black and brown and queer and non-male directors it employs. If anyone in the House even purports to care about changing up the look on that wall o’ directors in the lobby, it’s time to swing bigger for a win. If we get a third round of Welcome to the Blumhouse, call the shot and aim to clear the park. You’ve got a lot of great directors right there in your pocket. So bet on them.