Sure, scary-movie season might seem a little redundant this year. But what better insurance against a canceled Halloween than a streaming queue full of new horror content?
That’s the bet behind “Welcome to the Blumhouse,” a collaboration between Amazon and horror-focused production company Blumhouse (known for Get Out and Paranormal Activity) that consists of eight original thrillers released for free on Prime Video as double features. Just as the pandemic has sparked a resurgence of drive-in movie screenings, perhaps the double feature can be revived, too, as a way to generate interest in modestly budgeted work by younger filmmakers.
With the exception of The Lie, which is directed by The Killing showrunner Veena Sud, the first four films are all from up-and-comers. There are some broadly shared themes—family secrets feature heavily, as do class anxieties—but these are standalone works. Their uneven quality, though inevitable for a horror anthology, is not counterbalanced by much stylistic distinctiveness between films. One hopes that the next four (to be released in 2021) will make better use of the range of young talent that the studios have access to.
The two biggest names on the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” bill—Veena Sud behind the camera and Peter Sarsgaard in front of it—turn out to be no guarantee of quality. A spiritless leftover from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival that never found a distributor, The Lie finds Sud trying to recreate her success in adapting the Danish procedural series The Killing by adapting the 2015 German neo-noir We Monsters.
In Sud’s rendition, 15-year-old Kayla (Joey King) tells her divorced parents that she accidentally (or semi-accidentally) killed her friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs), and the family rushes to cover it up. The problem is that nothing that happens next is remotely plausible or compelling. Sarsgaard does his best as Kayla’s sloppy, overprotective father, Jay, but he’s impossible to believe as an aging rock star married to a corporate lawyer, Rebecca (Mireille Enos). For a film so focused on the private conversations between people who know one another intimately, the dialogue is impersonal and clumsy. Sud is then driven to try to wrench profundity out of silence.
In a typical sequence in this agonizingly paced film, Jay or Rebecca tells an unconvincing lie, goes back into the family’s fake modernist home, sits quietly, cries, goes to a different room, and cries some more. An alternate title could have been: “White people weeping inside a desaturated Ikea catalog.”
As a result, this C-list crime procedural crossed with a D-list domestic drama transpires with agonizing slowness. When the plot finally escalates in the third act, several twists that would have been ridiculous on their own are crammed together, making nearly everything we just saw meaningless.
At one point, Kayla asks her dad, “When you do something really bad—how do you undo that?” The moral of the story: You can’t, not even by selling it to Amazon. —Ryan Vu
This sci-fi thriller features a Black Mirror-esque twist on hauntings. Months after losing his memory in a car accident that also killed his wife, Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) volunteers for an experimental memory treatment. It seems to work, but the memories don’t seem to be his.
Director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s debut feature-length film is strongest in its early stages when Nolan is struggling to rebuild his life. His young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), and his friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) seem to have known a very different man. Nolan is unable to access the skills he used to have as a photographer, and his career is in free fall. His excitement over his apparently restored memory—palpable in Athie’s empathetic performance—is tempered by the alarmed reactions of his loved ones as he begins to “remember” places he’s never been.
When the other shoe drops halfway through the film and Black Box’s more obvious horror elements emerge, both plot and tone start to get a little incoherent. Phylicia Rashad, playing the doctor in charge of Nolan’s treatment, pushes the character too far into mad-scientist territory, though she is always watchable. And in a twist that manifests late, Athie’s convincingly grounded performance becomes a liability as he’s forced to essentially tear down and rebuild his character, a near-impossible feat that he never quite pulls off.
While not succeeding in all its ambitions, as a straight horror film, Black Box has two clear strengths. Real-life contortionist Troy James, riveting as Pretzel Jack in the final season of Syfy horror anthology Channel Zero, is terrifying as a figure that crawls around Nolan’s dreams in a spine-cracking backbend. Osei-Kuffour Jr. has a filmmaking background in Japan, and the creepy way he represents Nolan’s amnesia (everyone he meets in his dreams has a blurred face) draws from the best of J-horror. Hopefully, Black Box, worth a watch on its own terms, will pave the way for Osei-Kuffour to push his talents even further. —RV
Based on Madhuri Shekar’s audio play, supernatural thriller Evil Eye recounts the story of an Indian family targeted by an intergenerational curse. New Delhi matriarch Usha (Sarita Choudhury) structures her life around amulets and worries about her daughter, Pallavi (Sunita Mani), who is approaching her thirties and—to her mother’s dismay—enjoying life as a single woman in New Orleans.
When Pallavi finally starts a relationship with a seemingly perfect suitor, though, Usha realizes that a hex placed on her by an abusive past partner is about to be passed on to her daughter.
Evil Eye examines the horror of abuse and its irreversible damage through a supernatural lens, drawing parallels between the abuser’s controlling tactics and black magic’s control over someone else’s fate. A few scenes insightfully point at the hidden power dynamics in both abuse and hexing: their isolating and paranoid self-doubting effects, their consequences on social credibility, and their ability to affect future generations.
Unfortunately, the thriller’s potential for conceptual depth is thwarted by poor technical execution. The stylistic carelessness results in unimaginative soap-opera cinematography, a rushed and tedious plot, and—with the exception of Choudhury’s moments of seasoned intensity—performances so flat and awkward they make Evil Eye seem like an absurd comedy.
This otherwise-underwhelming film draws its allure exclusively from its premise, which brilliantly entwines mythology and generational trauma. One wishes that the visionary flashes of insight in Shekar’s script had been given more time to develop into a consistent narrative and that its adaptation had been put into more capable hands. —Marta Núñez Pouzols
In Nocturne, Zu Quirke’s directorial debut, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is a sheepish piano student tired of living under the shadow of her temperamental, talented twin sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). With senior year at an art high school coming to an end, Juliet, continually underestimated by her teachers and classmates, is mortified that her sister has been accepted to Juilliard.
After a virtuoso student in the school mysteriously dies, Juliet comes across her notebook, which is filled with sinister artwork and musical scores. Juliet’s obsession with the notebook unleashes her unknown potential as a soloist as well as a series of macabre events.
Nocturne feels as if Darren Aronofsky’s groundbreaking but affected Black Swan had been adapted into an episode of the delightful HBO series Euphoria. The result is unfortunately not as bizarre as it could be, but it is satisfying, full of interesting twists, and it skillfully avoids grandiloquence with honest, tender glimpses of adolescent cruelty. Sweeney pulls her weight with a dimensional performance that ranges from stern to delirious, echoing the tension between control and abandon permeating the plot.
Although Nocturne sometimes reaches for Faustian-bargain clichés, these predictable moments become complex thanks to the stylistic risks Quirke takes, including unconventional sound design. The film also benefits from being part of a thus-far disappointing series. Given the flatness and sometimes outright incompetence of the other movies, it stands out as having an intriguing visual style and an atmosphere that, at its best, is satisfyingly disturbing.
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