There’s a certain charm to modest genre offerings that most viewers wouldn’t seek out beyond October, when so many of us spend the entire month immersed in all things horror. Though “Madres” probably wasn’t planning to fall under that umbrella, at least it’s in good company. Arriving as part of Welcome to the Blumhouse, an annual series of four Amazon Originals produced by, well, Blumhouse, director Ryan Zaragoza’s socially conscious chiller evokes everything from “Rosemary’s Baby” to the folklore tale of La Llorona while trying — but only occasionally succeeding — to carve a space for itself in that crowded milieu. It’s the kind of distraction you might pad a midnight-movie marathon with, likely sandwiched between more accomplished films with similar thematic underpinnings.
The film opens with a quote from Joseph Conrad — “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness” — before offering a glimpse of a nightmare had by Diana (Ariana Guerra) that would unsettle any mother-to-be: Her baby’s bassinet fills with dirt in the middle of the night as she helplessly tries to save it. When she wakes up, she’s in the passenger seat as her husband Beto (Tenoch Huerta) drives them to their new home in 1970s California, where he’s been offered a managerial role on a farm.
Taking the series’ title more literally than most, “Madres” centers its experience on the happy couple’s fixer-upper of a home. They aren’t the first to occupy it, and Diana quickly realizes that figuring out what befell its previous resident might shed some light on such oddities as why they were greeted with an eyeball hanging from a tree immediately after moving in. She soon starts seeing things, because of course she does — this house was never not going to be haunted, just as the townsfolk were never not going to be hostile toward their new neighbors and her pregnancy was never not going to be unaffected by these spooky happenings. Her feelings of alienation are exacerbated by the fact that she was born in Los Angeles and, despite her heritage, doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, which makes Diana an outsider among her new peers, one of whom goes so far as to call her gringa.
“Madres” is being paired with fellow Oct. 6 release “The Manor” as a kind of double feature, having been preceded by last week’s “Black as Night” and “Bingo Hell.” A glut of similar offerings by streaming services can make it difficult not to look at “Madres” and its ilk through the lens of content rather than cinema, but it’s clear that Zaragoza and his team don’t feel that way. Where the film distinguishes itself is in centering its narrative on Hispanic characters in general and agricultural workers in particular. Diana comes to suspect that these strange goings on are the result of pesticides, while a superstitious shopkeeper believes she’s been cursed; the moment you hear Beto’s superior claim that “those new agri-chemicals are a godsend,” you know they’re anything but.
“Madres” is ultimately more of a message movie than you’re probably expecting, complete with on-screen text at the end more commonly seen in documentaries and biopics. If only for the way it further sets the film apart from most other horror flicks, this isn’t such a bad thing. The world of horror doesn’t lack for ‘80s throwbacks or slashers-come-lately, whereas a pregnancy thriller about a Mexican-American couple feels downright novel by comparison. The problem, as is so often the case, is that “Madres” won’t send chills down your spine or make the hair on your arms stand up — even if it does teach you more than its scarier counterparts ever attempt to.