Bingo Hell (2021)
Directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero
Screenplay by Guerrero, Shane McKenzie, & Perry Blackshear
Starring Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell, Joshua Caleb Johnson, & Richard Brake.
★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Gigi Saul Guerrero has established herself as a filmmaker with social commentary at the foreground of her work. Previously, Father Son Holy Gore covered Guerrero’s contribution to the anthology horror series Into the Dark, the July 4th-themed Culture Shock—a terrifying look at the immigrant experience in the United States, told through the eyes of a young Mexican woman who winds up in a truly unique American nightmare. In Guerrero’s latest film, Bingo Hell, she again looks at the immigrant experience, this time through the eyes of an older generation forced to battle against the gentrification of their neighbourhood.
Where Bingo Hell excels is the way it presents contemporary white gentrification as a literal deal with Satan, turning capitalist enterprise into another facet of the Devil himself. The film’s also unique, and very fresh, because its main cast are mostly older actors. Film, particularly in Hollywood, has become very ageist over the past four or five decades, and the horror genre in particular, especially since the 1980s, has gravitated more often than not towards stories centred on young people. Bingo Hell isn’t only a vehicle just for the sake of casting older actors, its story and plot revolve around the reality that it isn’t only the young who want to save our collective future from capitalist greed, there are plenty of older folks who’d rather go down swinging than sell out their homes, their neighbourhoods/neighbours, or their cultures.
The great representation of older actors in Bingo Hell, and older actors of colour specifically, helps drive home an important perspective in the film’s story itself: gentrification not only affects the development of the next generation(s), it affects the homes and lives of those who’ve lived in such neighbourhoods their entire lives, effectively threatening everything they’ve ever known. Gentrification affects not only communities, as in groups of people, but also a sense of community as a whole through the spaces it destroys, such as the bingo hall—spaces where people gather, share, create, love, debate, and more.
Something else that destroys communities is the way gentrification typically turns community members against one another when properties are bought up while some choose to sell and others, hoping to stay, refuse. One character, who decides to figuratively (and kind of literally) sell their soul to the Devil through giving into gentrification, says: “Don‘t you think we deserve better?” But what is better when it comes at the cost of one’s morals and class solidarity, or, in the case of the Devil here, one’s soul? Lupita (Adrian Barraza) is the only person who holds out from the older generation. She even sees one of her old friends Dolores (L. Scott Caldwell), a former beacon of the community alongside her, fall under the sway of Mr. Big’s fat, white wallet.
Bingo Hell doesn’t only focus on class, further illustrating the intersection of class and race by essentially making the film’s ultimate villain whiteness, embodied in Mr. Big (Richard Brake), who largely preys upon people of colour. Even when he’s not preying on residents from the neighbourhood who are people of colour, his actions have repercussions for people of colour, such as with the white mom Raquel (Kelly Murtagh) and her Black son Caleb (Joshua Caleb Johnson).
No doubt many white folks had a problem with this film simply because they’re unwilling to recognise the way class and race intersect to create tougher conditions for those who are not only BIPOC but also lower income or poor. A great moment comes when one of the neighbourhood residents suggests they don’t actually know the new bingo hall owner, whom they’ve never seen, is white, and everyone else responds quickly with authority: “He‘s white.” Some people may not be willing to recognise the role race plays when in conjunction with class, whereas other people, like working class and poor BIPOC, have no choice but to because it’s their reality.
Although the film tackles the intersection of class and race it never strays from the horrific powers of capitalism. A recurring image throughout Bingo Hell is the gross, dripping, green slime that Mr. Big leaves everywhere he goes, like a residue of greed. Then there’s the big $ stamp and everyone who gets one on their hand winds up a zombie, hypnotised and hollowed out by the almighty dollar. The stamp’s a corrosive thing, burning through the skin like it does to Raquel, who also becomes the physical manifestation of materialism as she sees herself tearing her dress when it’s actually her tearing through her own skin. In the end several characters refuse to give in and see through the haunting materialism of Mr. Big, as well as others like him. During one scene, Eric (Jonathan Medina) tells Caleb: “Money ain‘t real, man. It can‘t solve your problems.” Sadly, even Eric ends up as a victim of money’s terrible power.
There’s not a lot of subtlety when it comes to Bingo Hell‘s depiction of class and race issues, but there doesn’t need to be, because the plot is entertaining and Guerrero leans into a 1980s-style horror feel to keep things feeling fun even while she explores important social issues. The focus of the bingo hall is a perfect one, too. In this Canadian province—Newfoundland and Labrador—gambling’s one of the biggest scams employed against low income and poor folks. The government in particular convinces people to spend increasingly more money on video lotto terminals (affectionately called VLTS or ‘whaps’ here) to chase the potential of making a big profit, only for tons of that money to go directly back to the government, a lot of which comes from money handed out by social programs, creating a vicious cycle that traps people in perpetual debt.
Of course it’s not the government manipulating people in Bingo Hell, it’s a devilish, white, supernatural capitalist, but then again, the government’s just another capitalist industry. The point is, capitalism, at its core, is the same everywhere in the way it destroys people’s lives. The best part of Guerrero’s film is that, by the finale, it makes clear that different generations can come together to fight the bigger societal enemies, whether racism, classism and capitalism, or both combined, and that we’re always stronger together against forces that seek to erode our humanity.