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Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse movies aren’t horror, but they’re fascinating

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The poster for Amazon’s new film series Welcome to the Blumhouse features a picture of a literal house: a four-story family home, with each story occupied by, well, a story. The top floor represents the movie Nocturne, with a young woman sitting at a piano while a ghostly figure floats by the window. Below that is the movie Black Box, with a man receiving a bizarre medical treatment while a young girl sits on a sofa nearby. The second floor is Evil Eye, and has Indian decor behind a grisly tableau featuring a knife-wielding woman and a corpse. And on the ground, next to a garage containing a blood-stained car, a sullen family sits around a dining-room table. This is The Lie.

Welcome to the Blumhouse is the latest attempt by the successful, largely horror-focused media company Blumhouse Productions to showcase talented filmmakers with offbeat, perhaps-not-yet-ready-for-the-big-screen ideas. In October 2018, Hulu started carrying the still-ongoing series Into the Dark, a monthly-installment anthology of low-budget, feature-length Blumhouse horror films, each with a loose seasonal theme. But while some individual Into the Dark episodes have been well-reviewed, the series as a whole has yet to become as much a part of the pop-culture zeitgeist as anthologies like American Horror Story or Black Mirror — or even Blumhouse horror franchises like Paranormal Activity and Insidious.

Photo: Amazon Studios

Will Welcome to the Blumhouse break through? The project is certainly casting a wider net in terms of subject matter and approach. The first four films debut this October: The Lie and Black Box on the 6th, and Evil Eye and Nocturne on the 13th. (Four more are set for sometime in 2021.) Unlike the Into the Dark films, the Welcome to the Blumhouse installments all fall generally into the “suspense” category, with other elements mixed in — sometimes including horror, but not always.

Releasing four not-quite-horror movies in October is a risk, especially while branding them as the product of one of the most popular modern horror-producing companies. These films may turn off audiences expecting Happy Death Day or Sinister. But then there’s always been a lot more to Blumhouse than scares and gore, ever since Jason Blum founded the company in 2000. The first four Welcome to the Blumhouse movies embrace Blumhouse’s eclecticism, and each is trying to express something subtle and personal.

Consider The Lie. Written and directed by Veena Sud — adapting the German film We Monsters, written by Marcus Seibert and Sebastian Ko — The Lie stars Mireille Enos as Rebecca, a lawyer and a divorcée who’s doing her best to co-parent her teenage daughter Kayla (Joey King) with her ex, Jay (Peter Sarsgaard). When Rebecca and Jay suspect that Kayla did something terrible to her best friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs), they work together to cover for her, hiding evidence from the police while trying to redirect suspicion to Brittany’s temperamental father Sam (Cas Anvar).

Poster art from Amazon Studios’ The Lie

Photo: Amazon Studios

Sud and Enos previously collaborated on Sud’s TV series The Killing, another adaptation of a European crime drama — and another one that’s muted and chilly, more focused on human behavior than on sensationalism. The violence in The Lie is limited to a couple of non-explicit scenes. The tension derives more from the complicated dynamic between Rebecca, Jay, and Kayla, and from Sud’s understanding of how some children of divorce manipulate their parents’ feelings of guilt. Sud also emphasizes how Rebecca’s friendly relationship with the cops affects how aggressively they investigate Kayla, and how Sam’s subtle exoticism — he’s Palestinian — makes him seem more suspect to the authorities.

Black Box is also about how domestic bonds can be confining. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. (who also co-wrote the script with Stephen Herman, who had the original idea), Black Box stars Mamoudou Athie as Nolan, whose mind has been foggy ever since a traumatic incident. Every morning when he wakes up, Nolan relies on sticky notes around his house and the attentiveness of his preteen daughter Ava to remind himself of what he still has and what he’s lost. But when he begins to struggle with his job and his other relationships, Nolan sees a doctor named Lilian (Phylicia Rashad), who hooks him up to a device that lets him re-experience his missing memories.

Poster image from Black Box

Photo: Amazon Studios

The treatment seems to show Nolan aspects of his past and of his possible future that are incredibly disturbing, and which don’t sync up with his relatively bland life. It’s possible that to solve the mystery of his own existence, he’ll have to sacrifice his unsatisfying (but generally pleasant) day-to-day life. As with The Lie, there’s very little in Black Box that would pass as conventional horror, aside from a shadowy monster that keeps popping up whenever Nolan ventures too deep into his own head. It’s more of a character piece with a light science-fiction overlay, meant to explore the question of whether it’s safer to live unexceptionally.

The next two Welcome to the Blumhouse movies are under embargo for now, so there’s not much to say about them yet, beyond brief descriptions. Zu Quirke’s Nocturne is a moody supernatural thriller, with Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney playing a music student named Juliet, who begins to outshine her more accomplished sister after Juliet reads a dead classmate’s diary. And in Elan and Rajeev Dassani’s Evil Eye (based on Madhuri Shekar’s Audible Original radio-play), a mother in Delhi (Sarita Choudhury) worries that her daughter in New Orleans (Sunita Mani) is dating the reincarnation of a man who mistreated her decades ago. Like the first two “Welcome” entries, these two are very different in style, representing the filmmakers’ clear individual visions.

Poster image from Nocturne

Photo: Amazon Studios

All four of these films do have a bit in common, if perhaps inadvertently. Three of the four begin with home-video footage, showing happier and more carefree times. (The lone exception is Evil Eye, which opens with a flashback to a moment of tension and trauma.) And all four have a strong “be careful what you wish for” message. The protagonists in each of these stories make terrible choices in pursuit of something they think they need: familial closeness, lost memories, musical talent, the perfect boyfriend, and so on. They all feel like misfits — or like disappointments to their loved ones. They all feel a lack.

To some extent, this is Storytelling 101: All heroes need a quest. But the relative simplicity of the goals here makes them more relatable. This is something a lot of the best Blumhouse productions do. Even the movies with wild premises — like Jordan Peele’s body-possession shocker Get Out, or the giant-monster picture Sweetheart — are rooted in real anxieties, from racial tension to romantic mistrust. The people at Blumhouse who make the decisions about what to back and what to buy seem to seek out stories that have something to say.

What’s perhaps most exciting about Welcome to the Blumhouse — at least potentially, if the Amazon series runs for a while — is that its scope is much wider than that of Into the Dark. Blumhouse’s roster of theatrical releases has included the likes of Whiplash and BlacKkKlansman, and its TV division has produced The Jinx and The Good Lord Bird. A Blumhouse anthology series more flexible with its content is pretty promising, given what the company has done in the past.

Poster image from Evil Eye

Photo: Amazon Studios

Does the first batch realize that potential? Not entirely. None of these four take the kind of chances that Blumhouse movies like The Purge, Unfriended, or The Bay do. The most fully mature work here is Sud’s The Lie, which survives some jarring plot twists thanks to Enos, Sarsgaard and King’s outstanding performances, and thanks to Sud grasping that this story is less about the mystery of what happened to one teenage girl than it is about a dysfunctional, broken family struggling to kick back into gear, to rally around each other in a crisis.

If Welcome to the Blumhouse is a house, then it makes sense that The Lie is at the lowest level, like a foundation. Good genre films — good films, period — are often about how an extraordinary event reveals the structural flaws in an ordinary life. That may seem like a vague theme to build an anthology series around, at least compared to the sharper holiday hook of Into the Dark. But even more than horror, stories about a pervasive social unease are really what Blumhouse does best. If this new project leads to more of its filmmakers following the lead of The Lie, then that’ll be welcome indeed.


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