With so many great horror films out there we need a trustworthy curator, and our real-world Cryptkeeper today is Jason Blum, whose company Blumhouse Productions has brought us the likes of Paranormal Activity (2007), The Purge (2013), Get Out (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), and Fantasy Island (2020).
The Blumhouse brand has quickly become synonymous with successful horror movies, so they’ve gone all out in packaging their latest four films under the banner of ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’, each exclusively streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Each of these offers something unique, from spirits and psychos to science fiction—in the case of Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s Black Box. However, this film veers too heavily in the sci-fi direction and left me wondering if this Blumhouse offering is more Black Mirror than Tales From the Crypt.
Black Box opens with a man called Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) struggling with amnesia after a tragic car crash. It was a life-changing event that left him without a wife, a career, and now unable to properly care for his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine). Athie sells his character’s uneasy drifting out of reality, while Christine plays the responsible adult cooking meals and putting her dad’s ties on for work. There’s a fun moment where Nolan reaches for a cigarette only to be reprimanded by Ava… but does he really not smoke or is his daughter just getting him to quit? Are those around him taking advantage of Nolan’s memory lapses? He broke his hand punching a wall but his friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) ensures him this aggression isn’t who he is, despite his own doubts.
Enter Dr Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) and her experimental Black Box, which promises to guide her patients through an immersive virtual reality trip into their subconscious. Nolan is threatened with losing Ava to child services so agrees to dives into his own mind to save them both, but a disturbing figure deep inside the virtual world won’t let him.
Cinematographer Hilda Mercado employs fantastic surrealism into these dream trips, using lo-fi techniques such as face blurring and claustrophobic lighting. But this is foremost a character-focused story using reality-bending ideas, much like The One I Love (2014), rather than a movie filled with action set-pieces like Inception (2010).
Unfortunately, this is what lets it down somewhat. While Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s story (co-written with Stephen Herman) is certainly interesting, only the acting made me engage with it despite so much expository dialogue. The deeper emotional elements from Nolan (losing his skill at photography, becoming estranged from Ava due to anger issues) are often too neatly surmised by the science explained by Dr Brooks.
David Lynch may polarise audiences with his own explorations of surrealism, but Black Box is much like Inception in removing too much ambiguity for audiences to ponder. Even the best recurring horror element of the Backwards Man (contortionist Troy James) is quickly explained away as Nolan’s brain trying to protect him from trauma. Get Out‘s own high-concept aspects were accepted by audiences because they didn’t explain too much, but here I laughed out loud at a computer screen readout stating “loading HYPNOSIS—execute?”
That being said, the writers do throw enough curveballs and it kept me guessing. Nolan and Gary’s own investigations lead them toward several possible conclusions, with each answer raising new questions. The most astonishing point in this structure is during a revelation I assumed was the shocking conclusion… only to realise Black Box was only halfway through.
Once memories and personalities truly begin, Black Box becomes an entirely different story… which is a good and bad thing. I enjoyed seeing where this goes and it generates suspense, and yet I wish the film had got there sooner. Almost the entire first hour is set-up for the actual story.
But here’s the biggest underlying issue: is Black Box a horror film? While produced under the Blumhouse banner, it’s never scary. Sure, the philosophical conflicts are portrayed as unnerving or unsettling but this is not something that’s perfect for Halloween. The only blatant horror element is the Backwards Man. The involvement of experimental science could have delivered disturbing imagery, pulled directly from a man’s imagination, but that never appears to be the intent of the director. Black Box is happy to instead riff on genre tropes to tell an emotional family drama about remembering the responsibilities of being a father.
USA | 2020 | 100 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.
writers: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. & Stephen Herman (story by Stephen Herman).
starring: Mamoudie Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola & Troy James.