The monthly series of original films known as “Into the Dark” may be on COVID-related hold over at Hulu, but even a pandemic can’t stop the hardest working producer in Hollywood. Jason Blum has shuffled over to Amazon Prime Video, which announced in August that it would premiere a new collection of Blumhouse productions, starting with four films in October and continuing with another quartet in 2021. Under the banner of “Welcome to the Blumhouse,” these films promise an array of tones and talents, and none of that silly holiday attachment that came with “Into the Dark.” Blumhouse can be a hit-and-miss operation, but the potential that some of these original films merely needed this platform to find a receptive audience is definitely there. Horror fans love to find new voices telling ambitious stories. Unfortunately, the first two features in the ‘Blumhouse’ anthology might not be what they’re looking for.
The better of the two movies taking up a floor of the Blumhouse is Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s examination of memory and identity through a sci-fi high concept in “Black Box.” More “The Outer Limits” than “Tales from the Crypt,” this is a story of a man caught in a conceivable waking nightmare. Nolan (an effective Mamoudou Athie) recently suffered a horrible brain injury after an accident that killed his wife and left his memories shattered as he tries to care for his daughter. Imagine having to raise a child on your own but also not really remembering who she is or how you got here. Every time his daughter tries to do a secret handshake with dad that he can’t remember, his heart breaks a little.
And so Nolan decides to undergo a breakthrough new treatment courtesy of a neurosurgeon named Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), who claims to be able to bring Nolan’s memories back. You know how they say that you see your life flash before your eyes before you die? What if that’s not just talk? What if there’s a way to access those images and events in your personal timeline while you’re alive? With a premise that sounds ripped from ‘80s sci-fi movies like “Dreamscape” and even a dose of “Nightmare on Elm Street,” Nolan will enter his own past. The problem is that things don’t look right when he gets there.
“Black Box” hinges on a major twist about Nolan that should keep viewers relatively engaged in terms of pure storytelling, but it’s a notably unambitious film in every other way. A film about jumping into haunted memories in which identity becomes even less discernible than in an amnesiac state needs to be trippier than this. It needs to be surreal and disorienting, but “Black Box” has all the visual language of a cheap “Twilight Zone” knock-off. There’s nothing here to grab the viewer outside of a bent figure that Nolan keeps seeing in his visions. The rest is flat visually and repetitive in terms of character. That twist may be enough for some people, but it’s hard to believe this will be the most memorable chapter of “Welcome to the Blumhouse.” Let’s hope not. [C]
On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that “Welcome to the Blumhouse” will get much worse than Veena Sud’s “The Lie,” a film from the creator of “The Killing” and “Seven Seconds” that has languished on a shelf since its TIFF 2018 premiere and is now being somehow shuffled into this mix despite the fact that it’s not really a horror film. It’s a stunningly tone-deaf “thriller” (in quotes because nothing here is legitimately thrilling) that could more accurately be called “Unrealistic Human Behavior.” Sud’s story hinges on people doing things that no actual person would ever do, and then it peaks in a laughable twist that one almost wishes they could have seen with a crowd in Toronto because the uncomfortable chuckling must have drowned out the dialogue.
A remake of a German film called “We Monsters,” “The Lie” stars Joey King as Kayla, a 15-year-old who is on her way to a skating competition with her father, Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), when she spots a friend named Brittany (Devery Jacobs) waiting for the bus to the same event. She convinces dad to give Brittany a ride, but their new passenger needs Jay to pull over so she can relieve herself. Kayla and Brittany go off into the snowy woods…only Kayla comes back. A horrified dad listens as his daughter confesses to pushing Brittany off a snow-covered bridge. At first, he wants to call 911, but then quickly reverts to thriller movie dad form and decides it’s time for a nonsensical cover-up, one that will need the assistance of Kayla’s mom Rebecca (Mireille Enos), with whom Jay is in the middle of a contentious divorce. Nothing reunites a couple like covering up their child’s murder.
Naturally, people start wondering where Brittany went. Her dad Sam (Cas Anvar) keeps knocking on Kayla’s door, asking if she’s seen her friend and why Jay and Rebecca are acting so weird. Kayla and Brittany have covered for each other before. Maybe that’s what’s happening again. And here, a story that was already on narratively thin ice when it comes to realism, comes completely apart at the seams. Rebecca and Jay make decisions related to Sam that defy all understandable reason unless the theme here is that cover-ups make you stupid. Detectives get involved, evidence gets found, and it all builds to a climax that is so ridiculous that it’s more likely to produce laughter than any other human response.
The storytelling of “The Lie” is atrocious, but it’s not the film’s only flaw. Almost as if they knew there was no way to convey this tale realistically, Sud appears to have directed her ensemble to play for the cheap seats. Scene after scene of histrionics can be exhausting, and it drags down even typically solid performers like King and Sarsgaard, who has never looked quite as lost in a production as he does here. It all emerges from the fact that Sud bungles the nuance and intensity of the inciting incident—she can’t figure out how to direct actors who may be covering up a murder, so she appears to have directed everyone to shoot for the moon. None of it registers as real from the bridge on, and not only because of how much of what follows relies on dumb movie logic. The actual lie is that anyone will find this entertaining. [D]
“Welcome to the Blumhouse” kicks off with “Black Box” and “The Lie” on October 6 on Amazon Prime Video.