At this point, Blumhouse isn’t just a production company. Having bankrolled over a dozen years worth of Purges and paranormal activity (alongside the occasional Best Picture nominee), it’s basically a brand: If you see that staggering child specter before the opening credits, you know you’re in for some modestly budgeted thrills of one kind or another. Name recognition is certainly what Amazon is counting on with Welcome To The Blumhouse, a slate of standalone features packaged together under the company label. But though the first four titles in the series are arriving just in time for Halloween (two of them hit Prime last week, while a second pair dropped yesterday), it would be a stretch to describe them as horror, by any traditional definition. It’s a bit of a bait and switch, really: four thrillers of variable quality, low in budget but also on the scares vaguely promised by Amazon’s haunted-house marketing.
Most of the films do offer elements that are at least horror adjacent. For example, Black Box (Grade: B-) features a bogeyman of sorts: a nightmarishly hypermobile specter who pops his limbs around like the world champion in Twister. This mysterious contortionist haunts the subconscious of Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie), an amnesiac whose first name is proof that writer-director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour remembers Sammy Jankis. His protagonist, who keeps notes to remind himself to perform daily tasks, survived the car crash that killed his wife, but he can’t recall much about the life they shared. So he submits to an experimental memory recovery program involving VR technology and hypnosis, spearheaded by an ambitious scientist (Phylicia Rashad).
Black Box is no Memento. It’s more like a solid episode of Black Mirror, with some ideas and imagery pilfered from one of Blumhouse’s biggest hits, Get Out. (Osei-Kuffour even sends Nolan to a sunken place when he first goes under the doctor’s suggestion.) Athie, in a well-deserved upgrade to leading man after a few years of supporting turns, sensitively navigates the film’s games of identity hide and seek; he provokes our full sympathy, which the film then subverts and complicates with a decent second-act twist. Just don’t expect a gauntlet of terror—nor convincing sci-fi production design, for that matter.
An undisguisable dearth of resources is one of the unifying qualities of Amazon and Blumhouse’s grab-bag collaboration, along with a washed-out digital palette, a focus on family, and the phantom influence of other movies on familiar genre conceits. There’s a faint, unfortunate whiff of Tyler Perry melodrama to the deadly dull Evil Eye (Grade: C). The title promises a tale much spookier and pulpier than this padded-out intergenerational soap opera about a New Orleans twentysomething (rising star Sunita Mani, also appearing this month in Save Yourselves!) whose superstitious mother (Sarita Choudhury), calling constantly from Delhi, becomes convinced that her daughter may be falling into a shadow reboot of an abusive relationship from her past. Screenwriter Madhuri Shekar adapted the story from her own Audible audio play, and after the umpteenth visually drab scene of overqualified actors delivering dialogue into their phones, one is forced to conclude that it probably should have stayed in that medium—or at least been directed less like a bland romantic comedy, all shot-reverse-shot and establishing drone footage.
If watching good actors flail is your idea of a good time at the movies, make it a double feature and pair Evil Eye with the laughably ludicrous The Lie (Grade: C-), rescued from release-date purgatory two years after its festival premiere to play the bullet in Welcome To The Blumhouse’s audience-courting game of Russian roulette. No less than three accomplished performers go down with the ship in Veena Sud’s remake of the German thriller We Monsters, in which divorced parents Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) and Rebecca (Mireille Enos) incompetently scramble to protect teenage daughter Kayla (Joey King) from the consequences of an impulsive act of violence. The Lie seems to fancy itself a meditation on the extremes parents will go to on their children’s behalf, but it’s curiously disinterested in what should be its driving dramatic force: how Kayla’s crime—and how little it seems to weigh on her conscience—might challenge their unconditional love for her. Still, after roughly 90 minutes of unbelievable behavior and botched suspense, the twist ending is too audaciously ridiculous to entirely resist. You’ll scream, but not in fear.
Ironically, the movie in this package that at least marginally qualifies as horror is also the one that echoes one of Blumhouse’s most successful forays into non-genre fare. Nocturne (Grade: B), from writer-director Zu Quirke, is like Whiplash’s little sister, spinning as it does the reasonably taut tale of a teenage Salieri (Sydney Sweeney) whose rivalry with her Juilliard-bound twin sister (Madison Iseman) takes on a potentially supernatural component during their tense, eventful final year at a prestigious conservatory.
Flashes of the macabre, including a jump-scare appearance by a fellow student who committed suicide under the same pressure the heroine endures, are creepy enough and well-executed. But the movie almost doesn’t need them. It’s plenty compelling as a portrait of mounting stress, anchored by a character who’s at once relatable and hard to entirely root for in her bitter, competitive drive, which may be slightly at odds with her less-than-prodigious talent at the ivory. Nocturne, like its brittle protagonist, is good enough at what it does to make you wish it were a little better. (The ending, for one, is entirely predictable, though props to Quirke for a suggestively harsh final image.) But this also the only Welcome To The Blumhouse selection so far that could easily stand on its lonesome, drawing an audience without the misleading branding. Those determined to watch all four, though, should definitely save it for last, like the anchor leg of a relay team carrying some seriously dead weight.
Black Box, The Lie, Evil Eye, and Nocturne are available now on Amazon Prime.