Black Box and The Lie review: Amazon, Blumhouse kick off Halloween season with two fright-free fiascos
The Lie and Black Box debuted as a double feature on Amazon Prime Video on 6 October.
As is tradition in October, streaming services are updating their horror movie catalogues to help us get into the Halloween spirit. Blumhouse, which has become near-synonymous for low-budget high-return horror movies, brings us four of eight features set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video under its 'Welcome to the Blumhouse' banner this month.
Indeed, streaming services have become junkyards for studios to dump horror movies unlikely to earn huge theatrical revenue. Occasionally, you might discover hidden treasures like Cam on Netflix. More often than not, it's trash like Truth or Dare, which even has an Extended Director's Cut no one asked for.
The Lie (★☆☆☆☆) definitely belongs in the latter category. Writer-director Veena Sud reunites with The Killing stars Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard, who play a divorced couple willing to let their teenage daughter get away with murder. Literally. On the way to ballet camp through the snowy expanse of upstate New York, Kayla (Joey King) sees her friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs) at the bus stop and compels her dad Jay (Sarsgaard) to give her a lift. Stopping for a pee break mid-way, the girls head into the woods. The camera cuts here and we don’t get to see what happens or how. But Kayla confesses to her dad that she pushed Brittany off the bridge because "she was being a bitch." Jay (shockingly) doesn't probe any further but sees two choices: report the crime or cover it up.
Unconditional love is taken to a terrifying new extreme in The Lie. Determined to keep Kayla out of prison at any cost, Jay enlists his ex-wife Rebecca's (Enos) help. What follows is a series ill-judged steps nobody in their right mind would take. The lie snowballs down a slippery slope into a bigger one. Reaching an uncontrollable magnitude, the lie and their lives fall apart.
The aesthetics of the film’s wintry terror serve the same thematic function as in Fargo, but here it feels like a flimsy facsimile. Sud serves highly theatrical confrontations rather than uncomfortable insights into the emotional impact of divorce on children. She presents fresh complications to overwhelm the collapsing domesticity — Brittany's dad arrives at their doorstep asking questions, and the cops follow — before a cock-and-bull reveal. It's a twist that not only fails to redeem the lack of tension in the preceding 80-odd minutes, but it cheapens the film.
The way in which Rebecca and Jay frame a Pakistani-American man for their daughter's crime is a loathsome demonstration of white privilege. However, Sud pulls her punches while addressing its racial subtext. To recap: There's no pay off, no real sense of suspense, and no likable characters, but a ton of WTF decision-making and melodrama. For the ever-hungry horror movie fan, The Lie's got about the same novelty and nutritional value as cheap Halloween candy.
In the last 10 years, Blumhouse's biggest success story has been — without a doubt — Jordan Peele's Get Out. You find "from the producers of Get Out" proudly displayed on the poster for almost every horror film they've since produced. Black Box (★★☆☆☆) does mirror Get Out in some ways. It features a black protagonist who tumbles into a cognitive void not unlike the Sunken Place after being hypnotised by a woman with deceitful intentions. In other ways, it feels like a rejected Black Mirror idea.
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.'s feature debut deals with questions on memory and identity, two life-long obsessions of one Christopher Nolan. Perhaps it isn't coincidence that Nolan is also the name of the protagonist played by Mamoudou Athie. Having lost his wife and his memory after a car accident, Nolan undergoes an experimental treatment administered by a crack therapist named Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). Giving the movie an emotional quotient is Nolan's daughter Ana (Amanda Christine), a young girl forced to grow up in the absence of her mother and play caregiver to her father.
This is how the titular device works: Nolan puts on a headset, which helps retrieve memories in a way similar to the crash-survivable black box on aircraft. With each session of "digital voodoo" (as a character calls it) however, he isn't sure the memories he is inhabiting are his own. Once-familiar places feel unfamiliar. Once-recognisable faces become faceless figures. In this VR subconscious, he is also stalked by a sinister figure whose arrival is signalled by a bone-crunching, joint-popping sound design. This doesn't in any way compensate for the lack of tension in Black Box. The momentum that Osei-Kuffour Jr. spends the first half building is also undone by a twist half-way through the film. There are glimpses of a promising concept, but the film flatlines in the second half and never fully recovers.
Apart from the body contortions and the accompanying unpleasant sounds in Black Box, there are absolutely no scares between the two features. Although The Lie and Black Box both carry the Blumhouse label, they are really more family dramas wearing horror cloaks. Here's hoping next week's double feature (Evil Eye and Nocturne) is more frightening than frustrating.
There are many potential conceits that can result in a film that is far more superior, but those subplots, or sub-thoughts, rather are quickly abandoned.
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