For those who aren’t yet aware, Amazon Prime is currently hosting four recent horror films (a quartet? a quartilogy?) united under the name “Welcome to Blumhouse.” Blumhouse Productions is the company best known for producing films like Get Out, Paranormal Activity, and Sinister (hey, I wrote a Sinister review! Check it out HERE if you’re interested) as well as a plethora of other major mainstream horror films in recent years. While these new films are not related in any narrative way, they all share that same Blumhouse feel (for better or worse). Since they’re all available for streaming with an Amazon Prime subscription, I figured I might as well give them all a watch. So without any further ado, here’s the first installment in my “Welcome to Blumhouse” review series, starting with Emmanuel Osi-Kuffour’s Black Box.
This will be a shorter review, and it’s also going to include SPOILERS for Black Box. So if that’s the kind of thing that irks you, please give it a watch on Amazon or wherever else you can (legally!) find it before reading this review. Thanks!
Black Box is a cerebral film for the tired mind, it’s a thinker that doesn’t force you to work too hard, and it’s heady without ever condescending. Each of these dualities works both for and against the film at various points, but for a movie that tries to explore the nature of dualities, this tension, at the very least, feels appropriate. The film is confident enough to introduce complex relationships and ideas and yet feels no aversion to letting them go unexplored beyond the most superficial glance. It ventures into territories of significant, unknown vulnerabilities and populates them with petty drama and reused villains. It feels consistently just on the verge of an intellectual breakthrough, and then… it’s over.
The film focuses on a young man, Nolan, whose recent car accident led to his wife’s death and left him with severe brain-trauma-induced amnesia. As Nolan attempts to balance managing his health with caring for his young daughter, Ava, he enters into a study by a Dr. Brooks who’s new sci-fi medical-tech machine may be able to help Nolan recover his lost memories. It’s a Black Mirror setup if you’ve ever seen one, especially reminiscent of the episode Playtest when Nolan dons an Oculus-esque headset for a VR-exploration of his subconscious. Unfortunately, this comparison that Black Box inevitably draws to Black Mirror (if only by name) doesn’t do the film many favors. Compared to the popular Netflix anthology series Black Box has very little to say and offers not even an attempt at the levity that can make Black Mirror episodes both horrifying and horrifyingly entertaining.
The main twist comes at the midpoint of the film when it turns out (SPOILERS!) that Nolan… isn’t actually Nolan. He’s Dr. Brooks’ son, Thomas. The same Dr. Brooks who has been studying Nolan and allegedly helping him recover his lost memories has been trying to awaken the consciousness of her deceased son, which she had uploaded into Nolan’s braindead corpse following his car accident. Suddenly, the movie both a mad scientist film AND a family drama as Thomas (in Nolan’s body) tries to reconnect with his (Thomas’s) own wife and daughter.
I must admit that I’m a sucker for films that try and cast two actors as one character (Thomas’ original self replaces Nolan in his subconscious after his own identity is revealed to him) or films with one actor playing more than one character. While many directors have taken advantage of this sort of artistic meta-casting, I can’t help but compare this move in Black Box to any number of David Lynch’s films, but particularly Lost Highway, where one character becomes another all of a sudden. Of course, where Lynch is happy to let your subconscious try to hash out the emotional drama of this transformation, Black Box ironically (being a film about the subconscious) makes a bore out of itself through multiple explanations of the new state of things. The latter half of the movie is no longer an unengaging Black Mirror episode but an unengaging Days of Our Lives episode with a bit of sci-fi thrown in when it’s forced to wrap itself up.
This is where the duality lies. Two films, two characters, two genres. It’s a juggling act, to be sure, and what follows from it is surprisingly unexciting. I kept finding myself anticipating the film going in one direction or another, exploring some aspect of human consciousness, perception, or self-knowledge, and finding only a refusal to venture past predictable cliches.
Of course, with this being a Blumhouse picture, I have to answer the all-important question, “is it scary?” On that front, I give Black Box a resounding “Eh.” There are a few jump scares in there, and a The Ring-style monster who offers a bit of contortionist body horror, but otherwise, there’s nothing in between that evokes fear or even suspense. The overwhelming emotion I left the film with was a disappointment and a slight exasperation at its refusal to say something, anything. I fully expect that in a week or two, I’ll have Nolan-like amnesia where I don’t remember a thing about Black Box, and I somehow doubt it’s a memory that I’ll go out of my way to recover.