Blumhouse, the production outfit founded by Jason Blum, struck it big with unquiet souls terrorising American domesticity in Paranormal Activity – and not much has changed 11 years later, as the company launches Welcome to the Blumhouse, a diffusion line of eight thrillers in collaboration with Amazon Studios. (Four are released this year, four in 2021.) Here, the unquiet souls are the domestic inhabitants themselves – at least that’s the case in these first two films, which slot more into the psychological thriller category than the pure horror the studio is known for.
Veena Sud (showrunner of the US remake of The Killing) offers an accomplished helicopter-parenting noir in The Lie (★★★★☆) – though what beleaguered divorcees Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard engage in when trying to shield their daughter (Joey King) after she murders a schoolmate is probably better described as Black Hawk Down parenting. Sud – with plenty of inexorable tracking shots through the family’s chilly condo – efficiently tightens the screw as the twitchy mother and indulgent father first bicker, then are doomed together by their blood allegiances.
In fact, the couple are so blinkered in protecting their offspring that it prevents The Lie from entering more psychologically torn territory that might have made it profound. Instead it’s merely car-crash compelling. Sarsgaard – an actor who often feels like a John Malkovich/Philip Seymour Hoffman crossbreed – can do this kind of equivocating mess in his sleep. But the standout here is Enos: a rictus of scarlet lipstick topped with a battery of compulsive twitches.
Less classical but somehow more derivative is Black Box (★★★☆☆), which makes you wonder if Blumhouse is using its TV arm as a dumping ground for concepts that don’t quite make the cinematic cut. There are echoes of Get Out’s Sunken Place in the cutting-edge hypnosis treatment that road accident victim Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is prescribed to recover his memories. The good doctor (Phylicia Rashad) is sweet-tongued but wearing enough maroon eyeshadow to flag that she shouldn’t be trusted.
Faintly redolent of Inception, the therapy triggers unsettling flashbacks filled with blank-faced bystanders and a spider-walking revenant straight out of a J-horror flick. This pageantry registers less than the simple psychological tension that builds – and is ably maintained by debut director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour and his largely African American cast – as Nolan questions his identity.
But Osei-Kuffour – not helped by Athie’s rather stiff presence – can’t fully sell a crucial midway twist that pulls the focus away from the intriguing dynamic between a dependent father and a young daughter forced to grow up prematurely (a promising performance by Amanda Christine). Without any real stylisation to shake up Nolan’s inner realities beyond bog-standard techno-realism, this sunken place has no strong signature of its own – and little to add to the African American experience.