'Welcome to the Blumhouse' Review: 'Black Box' and 'The Lie' Both Play With Perception and Deception – With Mixed ResultsOctober 5, 2020
With theatrical releases a bit up in the air, and plenty of options to pick from, the frightmasters at Blumhouse have decided to release four of their pending films on Amazon Prime Video, packaging them as Welcome to the Blumhouse. It’s a novel idea, arriving just in time for Halloween season, with films grouped together. The first pair to arrive – Black Box and The Lie may not be connected by story, but they do share similar elements – primarily how we perceive things, and how we let other things deceive us. But as far as launches go, Welcome to the Blumhouse is off to a shaky start.
Think of Black Box as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a horror movie. It’s a story of memory or lack thereof. But while Eternal Sunshine was all about erasing memories via sketchy science, Black Box wants to bring them back. Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) has survived a car crash that killed his wife and turned him into a single parent in the process. That’s emotionally wrought as-is, but to make matters worse, the crash has wiped Nolan’s memories out completely. He can’t remember his past. He can’t remember his wife. And even though his daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine) is still very much in his life, he can’t remember very much about her, either.
When poor, understanding Ava tries to perform the secret, detailed handshake she and her father once shared, Nolan comes up blank. Later, she catches Nolan pulling out a pack of cigarettes and angrily reprimands him, insisting that he doesn’t smoke. It’s all very confusing for Nolan, and Athie does a wonderful job playing up how lost his character is. We can feel his anguish and his annoyance at not being able to remember who the hell he is. Young actress Christine is pretty good, too, although the screenplay, by director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. and Stephen Herman, unfortunately, turns her into one of those precious “movie kids” – you know the ones. Kids who are constantly quoting trivia as if it counts as character development while also acting wise beyond her years.
Desperate for a solution, Nolan turns to a kindly doctor, played by Phylicia Rashad, who insists her secret science project has the ability to restore Nolan’s lost memories. Nolan is skeptical, but with nothing left to lose, he agrees to be strapped into the doc’s machine and take a trip down memory lane. Here is where Osei-Kuffour Jr. gets to crank up the creepiness, presenting Nolan’s memories as weird dream-like states where the man finds himself surrounded by faceless, voiceless people. To make matters worse, there’s a twitchy, crawling, mysterious man lurking in these memories, his bones popping and clanking as he scutters towards Nolan like a deranged crab.
As if that weren’t weird enough, Nolan also starts noticing things in his medically-enhanced memories that seem slightly off. He finds himself in places he’s sure he’s never been. And he begins to suspect that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the nice guy everyone says he is, even though his friend Gary, played with strength and empathy by Tosin Morohunfola, insists otherwise.
The creepy memories brought on by tampering with science angle is nifty in a 1950s sci-fi throwback sort of way, but while Osei-Kuffour Jr. is able to conjure up more than a few disturbing moments – everything involving the mysterious twitchy man is great, aided by effective sound design full of rattling bones – Black Box loses steam rather quickly. Part of the problem is that it gives its game away far too soon, clueing us into what’s going on here at a point where we’re left adrift, unsure of what to even care about.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
The Lie, in sharp contrast, keeps its secrets close to the vest until the last possible second, and this, too, turns out to be a big mistake. Directed by Veena Sud, this domestic thriller had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, and then promptly dropped off the face of the earth before returning as part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse package.
Cold and sterile, set in a winter setting that’s appropriate chill-inducing, The Lie ultimately feels like one long anecdote leading to a punchline that isn’t going to win over anybody. Kayla (Joey King) seems like a nice enough young girl, and also your typical teen girl. She rolls her eyes at her mother Rebecca (Mireille Enos) and tends to gravitate more towards her cool dad (he’s in a band and he wears a hat and sunglasses like the Blues Brothers, so you know he’s cool), Jay, played by Peter Sarsgaard.
And then everything goes to hell.
While Jay is driving Kayla to a ballet class, the two spot Brittany (Devery Jacobs), one of Kayla’s friends, waiting at a bus stop in the snow. Kayla insists they give Brittany a ride, but almost immediately, the two girls start bickering. After Brittany pleads for Jay to pull over so she can go to the bathroom in the woods on the side of the road, Jay complies – and Kayla goes after her. The two aren’t gone very long before Jay hears a scream and comes running, finding a distressed Kayla proclaiming that Brittany fell off a bridge into racing, icy water below. Jay desperately searches the girl, even diving into the cold water, but comes up empty. And just when he’s about to dial 9-1-1, Kayla makes a shocking confession: she pushed Brittany off the bridge.
Jay is horrified, but immediately springs into protective dad mode, insisting the two flee the scene and inform Rebecca of what happened. Rebecca is understandably disturbed by all of this, and while she’s hesitant to go along with the cover-up plan, she eventually gives in. Jay keeps insisting it was an accident, but Kayla’s behavior begins to grow more and more unhinged, to the point where she’s angrily insisting she killed her friend and it was no mistake.
What are we to make of all of this? Is Kayla a budding young sociopath? Sud tacks on a prologue showing Kayla as a happy, grinning kid. Is the intention here to make us think that once, Kayla was a sweet, good person who then went rotten? And what of Kayla’s parents? The idea that parents would cover-up their child’s crime isn’t outlandish or far-fetched, in theory. But Sud, realizing she has to keep the narrative pumping, starts introducing new complications, like when the police get involved, or when Brittany’s dad (Cas Anvar) starts coming around asking questions.
This is all building somewhere, I promise – and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to like it. The Lie probably could’ve worked in a shorter form – a half-hour episode of a TV show, perhaps. But sitting through a feature-length film only to have the film pull the rug out at in the final few moments leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s a long way to go for something so dumb.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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