It’s no secret that streaming has taken an increased role in Hollywood, especially considering the current COVID-19 conditions. Studios are scaling back on theatrical content, leaving it to streaming services to pick up the slack this Halloween season. Thankfully, Amazon Prime is up for the task, debuting their “Welcome to Blumhouse” series to display the marquee horror studio’s latest content.
Before delving into their slate, I do want to commend Amazon for experimenting with this release. Despite horror being among the most popular film genres, streaming services have largely ignored scary movies in favor of sprawling TV shows (Haunting of Hill House). This year has been a welcome change to that structure, with Prime and Netflix debuting a few much-needed titles for scare-obsessed audiences (Vampires vs. The Bronx and Hubie Halloween were welcomed surprises).
Prime’s partnership with Blumhouse does create some mixed feelings. While Jason Blum has consistently proven his financial acumen, the horror studio’s slate has been the definition of a mixed bag. Breakout hits (The Invisible Man and Get Out) have often been followed up by uninspired missteps (Fantasy Island and Truth or Dare), leaving audiences on their toes with what to expect with each offering. With that being said, I decided to watch each “Welcome to Blumhouse” film and break down which films are worth your time (the list goes from best to worst).
BLACK BOX – Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour
Synopsis: After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, Nolan, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.
Presenting reflective thoughts on identity and it’s evolving relationship with technology, Black Box is delivered with the kind of weighty chilliness of Netflix’s Black Mirror anthology series. That’s not necessarily a bad trait, with Black Box spinning a high-concept yarn that keeps audiences on their toes throughout.
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s film trudges through some formulaic sci-fi elements, but his slicks presentation always keeps the narrative engaging. The central mystery is deployed with enough care to register a few genuine surprises, while Osei-Kuffour employs some creative visuals to display the character’s murky descent into his lost memories. Mamoudou Athie’s lead performance imbues some much-needed agency and humanity into Nolan’s journey of self-rediscovery (he and his daughter played by Amanda Christine share a genuine rapport). I also was won over by Phylicia Rashad’s icy performance as Nolan’s mysterious doctor, with the overlooked character actress conveying the stern menace that the script desperately calls for.
Black Box ultimately restricts itself with relatively low aspirations. Intriguing questions that could derive from the subject matter are rarely addressed, with the script only incorporating these conceits through clumsy metaphors (the third act involves a physical fight inside Nolan’s head). There’s also little the film does that hasn’t been improved upon in other offerings, lacking the creative edge to reinvent its trappings.
Unlikely to challenge viewers’ mindsets, Black Box still draws a compelling psycho-thriller from its meat-and-potatoes elements.
EVIL EYE: Directed by Elan and Rajeev Dassani
Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.
It may not be my favorite of the bunch, but I respect Blumehouse’s inclusive lens with Evil Eye (though one could argue they should be implementing that spirit with their big-screen offerings). Elan and Rajeev Dassani’s film represents their Indian culture with earnest sincerity, focusing on thoughtfully-constructed character dynamics over repetitive jump scares. Sarita Choudhury and Sunita Mani propel the film’s mother-daughter duo soundly, creating a lived-in dynamic that personalizes its familiar sentiments.
Ironically enough, Evil Eye works best when it skates away from its genre trappings. Elan and Rajeeve’s visual aesthetics are largely unimpressive, relying upon shaky camera motions that blur any potential horrors. The script also doesn’t develop its narrative with much care. Its central mystery plays out with haphazard obviousness, merely revealing the key twist without a proper build-up. Considering the promising nucleus, it’s a letdown that the film’s genre elements are so timid and unimpressive.
Evil Eye boasts some much-needed reinvention for its horror trappings, but that can only carry the middling genre elements so far. I am excited to see where Elan and Rajeeve’s career goes from here though, with the duo instilling a finite character-driven focus with their admirable misfire.
NOCTURNE – Directed by Zu Quirke
Synopsis: An incredibly gifted pianist makes a Faustian bargain to overtake her older sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.
Similar to Evil Eye, Nocturne is somewhat timid in its genre approach (works more as an adolescent drama than a horror film). While that will turn off conventional horror fans, Zu Quirke’s mannered depiction of music’s cutthroat nature packs some appealing qualities. Quirke’s direction conducts a few enthralling sequences, with her bold use of color and framing depicting the allures of the character’s vivid illusions. Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney also serves as a solid protagonist, portraying Juliet’s insecurities and desires with genuine weight.
Quirke’s amiable film ultimately derails itself through its lack of originality. Whether it’s dramatic heavyweights like Whiplash or surrealist masterworks like Black Swan, the dog-eats-dog culture of the refined arts has been depicted better by the film’s superior peers. As a screenwriter, Quirke’s effort lacks agency and dynamism, never digging underneath the surface of the school’s posh exterior. Qurike never pushes her narrative forward with a sense of discomfort, while her characters blankly stand in as generic stereotypes.
Nocturne is competently constructed, but the film fails to excel in any specific manner. It’s too flat to strike on a dramatic level, while also being too pale to register impactful genre thrills (it may not be the worst “Welcome to Blumhouse” film, but it’s certainly the most forgettable).
THE LIE- Directed by Veena Sud
Synopsis: A father and daughter are on their way to dance camp when they spot the girl’s best friend on the side of the road. When they stop to offer the friend a ride, their good intentions soon result in terrible consequences.
The Lie is a hard film to articulate my feelings towards, as its guilty-pleasure strengths are simultaneously the film’s stark falterings. Debuting back at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018 (it’s now infamously remembered as a centerpiece selection), Veena Sud’s woefully misguided attempt to ruminate on familial disconnect lands with a mawkish self-seriousness.
That being said, I can’t deny The Lie’s inherent entertainment value. Sud’s screenplay spins a bevy of illogical twists, leaving viewers hollowing at their screens with each implausible turn. The direction’s deadpan solemnness only enhances these missteps, with the pretentious sincerity registering with an infectious “so-bad-its-good” energy. It helps that the central performance muster genuine dramatic weight, with Joey King’s empathetic turn as a depressed teen elevating the poorly-constructed character.
Still, viewers will have a hard time ignoring the narrative’s apparent problems. The concept has the ability to connect to modern families’ apathetic tendencies, as they often highlight a superficial togetherness that masks their obvious disconnect. Sud’s script lacks the emotional intelligence to say anything of note, further distancing itself from reality with each passing twist. Everything concludes with one of the year’s most ridiculous finales, with the narrative woefully straining itself to a laughable degree.
The Lie doesn’t really work, but it’s the kind of infectious flop that will entertain genre enthusiasts. For a streaming title, it scratches that campy itch with reasonable success.
All and all, I enjoyed my descent into the “Welcome to Blumhouse” event. While these films don’t exhibit the best of what the studio has to offer, some of them are crafted with enough gusto and originality to please die-hard genre enthusiasts. I hope this becomes a recurring event in the future.
You can check out the “Welcome to Blumhouse” films on Amazon Prime
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