Welcome to the Blumhouse is an anthology series from Blumhouse Productions offering feature length films in theaters as well as online. The first two offerings are “Black Box” and “The Lie.”
Welcome to the Blumhouse
The ads for Welcome to the Blumhouse states: “Four unsettling films. Under one roof.” The poster is designed to look like a house with each room representing one story. The films packaged in this October’s anthology include “Black Box,” “The Lie,” “Nocturne,” and “Evil Eye.” Another collection is scheduled for next year.
The description of the films as “unsettling” is perhaps to prepare audiences not expect the kind of horror that Blumhouse is more famous for in films such as “Get Out,” “Insidious,” and “Paranormal Activity.” Welcome to the Blumhouse follows Blumhouse Productions’ “Into the Dark” series on Hulu. That was a monthly showcase of Blumhouse horror films.
The first two offerings, “Black Box” and “The Lie,” are serviceable low key thrillers. It’s not that they are bad but rather they are just not innovative or stylish in any way. They both play like extended “Twilight Zone” episodes in which the main appeal lies in a twist (but not the kind of clever often moral twists that Rod Serling used to deliver). It’s the length of these films that causes the most problems. They would likely work better as 30-60 minute episodes rather than feature length films that show the strain of unnecessary padding. The other issue with films where the cleverness is mostly in a plot turn is there tends to be less effort put into everything else.
“Black Box” opens with Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) recovering from a car accident that took the life of his wife and left him with severe memory loss. He is also now a single dad trying to raise a young daughter. His injury has impacted his ability to stay employed as a photographer and he also has trouble remembering things like picking up his daughter from school. In a desperate attempt to reverse the brain damage, Nolan enters into some experimental treatments with Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). But the treatments unlock something that makes him question his own identity.
The black box refers to a device Dr. Brooks uses as a kind of enhanced hypnosis to take Nolan deeper into his own psyche to reconnect to his memories. These trips into the dark recesses of his mind are the perfect place to display some originality and flair but director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour gives us pretty standard fare with creepy blurred faces and a contorted figure moving in unnatural ways. These scenes feel like they want to recall the Sunken Place of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” but Osei-Kuffour doesn’t have as powerful a vision of what those deep recesses could be like visually or audibly.
The film only becomes interesting once Nolan starts questioning who he is so there’s a good third of the film that feels wasted.
“The Lie” features Kayla (Joey King) and her divorced parents Jay (Peter Skarsgaard) and Rebecca (Mireille Enos). Jay and Kayla pick up Kayla’s friend Britney (Devery Jacobs) on their way to a dance camp. What happens next leads to not just one lie (but there is one particular lie that the title refers to) but a series of lies that perversely bring the estranged family closer.
The film is chilly and muted because of both the winter setting and the emotional make up of the characters. More so than in “Black Box,” “The Lie” has to manipulate its characters in order to pull off its twist. This means the film doesn’t hold up all that well once you know the ending. The other down side is the twist is not hard to figure out and once it becomes clear it opens up ideas about how the film could have perhaps played out its themes more forcefully and with more edge. It could have really dug deeper into some disturbing family and social dynamics but it only pays casual heed to them.
Director/writer Veena Sud tries to inject some social commentary by having the white family try to cast suspicion on a Pakistani neighbor. But that attempt to explore racism is neither sharp enough nor used cleverly enough. It almost feels inserted just so the film can try to tap into the popularity of socially conscious horror.
The film also suffers from the fact that none of the main characters are particularly engaging or worthy of empathy. It’s not that I want them to be likable but I need a reason to remain interested in their story. And because they just behave stupidly and are pawns in the hands of the script (which Sud adapted from the German film Wir Monster”), I grew impatient with the film.
Both of these films boast solid production values but stylistically are uninspired. Both could have also done a better job of building a sense of dread or tension. They both make attempts at weaving some sort of social commentary into the storylines since Blumhouse had such great success with that in “Get Out” and “Us,” but neither of these filmmakers is as skilled or as smart as Jordan Peele.
These films stand in interesting contrast to a Shudder film called “Host,” about friends who decide to hold a séance on Zoom. While “Black Box” and “The Lie” stretch their material thin, “Host” knows exactly how long to stay its welcome.
It’s refreshing to find a film that recognizes its limits and plays smartly within them. Since the set up is they are all in quarantine and have to Zoom together, the film uses all the trappings of a Zoom meeting in terms of the way the image is presented. The clever opening of the film looks like someone has taken control of your computer screen. “Host” builds effectively, using fake scares to deflate tension before delivering the real ones, and it almost plays within the 40 minute free Zoom meeting limit. Instead of feeling cheated by the film being much shorter than a usual I was delighted that it lasted exactly how long it needed to be. The only leap of faith it asks is that you don’t think too much about how we are seeing some of the footage.
Although neither “Black Box” nor “The Lie” hit it out of the park, there was enough merit to make me interested in watching the next two films. And kudos to Blumhouse for at least providing opportunities to filmmakers who want to work in the horror genre.
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