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Media Review: December 2020

Your friendly correspondent has been less than enthused with the reputation of Blumhouse films, a studio that has specialized in lower-budget horror, some of which has struck him as sad specimens of the “high-concept premise first, story possibly later” market segment.

This changed with The Invisible Man (2019), which impressed him mightily, and has been underscored by actual research into the company’s output that shattered the stereotype he was forming and, he admits, was absolutely wrong about. It hasn’t all been about about glossy young college students contending with curses as in Truth Or Dare (2018) or the notorious Fantasy Island (2020); they are also the distributors of such Oscar-Bait as Whiplash (2014) and have within genre been the umbrella of works discovered by the public like Get Out (2017). So I apologize to the studio and herewith examine a couple of horror-adjacent works released directly to streaming in the theatrical-deprived month of October 2020.

The Lie
Directed by Veena Sud
Produced by Blumhouse Productions and Mad Dog Films
October 6, 2020

The Lie, originally previewed to film-festival audiences in 2018—and, I find, largely greeted with loathing then—received its official public release this month, as a Prime Streaming original, and is getting much the same reaction now. (Along with other film-review outlets like the New York Times taking its history into account, I herewith make the command decision that it counts as a 2020 film.) The Times called it misery porn and other reviews have called it slow, glum, and an exercise in trying to feel sympathy for characters who should know better but make one terrible mistake after another. They absolutely do, as it turns out. There is a point very early on when this viewer was shouting at the screen about the idiocy of launching the titular coverup; but if you always posit people knowing exactly what to do when their world is falling apart, you lose much of noir, just to start. I suspect that consumers of horror will be more in tune with this horror-adjacent tale of people doing exactly the wrong thing, for what to them seem at the moment to be the right reasons. We understand that it’s not always easy to know what to do.

Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) and Rebecca (Mireille Enos) are the divorced parents of fifteen-year-old Kayla (Joey King), a girl at the precise age where it is a good thing for her that Mom and Dad are committed to loving her, because they would otherwise give in to the temptation to kill her. She is bratty, entitled, mercurial, selfish, manipulative, and all those other fifteen-year-old things. It is winter time, in a wooded area outside a city, and Dad is driving her to a ballet retreat already paid for that she is for this moment treating as a horrible obligation her parents are subjecting her to, when Kayla spots her friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs) on the side of the road and insists on giving her a lift. Within minutes Brittany has gotten on Kayla’s nerves by flirting with Jay. The tension is already thick by the time Brittany and the girls insist on Jay pulling over to the side of the road so that they use the woods for an emergency pee break. He does this. It is a stop that ruins the lives of everybody involved, because Kayla emerges tearful and confessing to impulsively shoving Brittany off a bridge and into an icy river.

Is it strictly speaking sensible for Jay to immediately start bending Heaven and Earth to shield his daughter from the consequences? No, it is not. At that moment, a phone call to the police, claiming an accident, is most likely to save her from prison. Is it stupid of the film to portray him failing to think this out, and embroiling his ex in a coverup that starts to fall apart the second any pressure is put on them? No, it is not. This is a film about one bad decision inevitably leading to the next. Even as the girl’s on-again, off-again nonchalance over her crime leads both parents, now fully committed to their own deceptions, to wonder whether she’s some kind of monster. You can’t accuse them of being sensible, but you can accuse them of being human.

The film, chilly in its aesthetic and unrelenting in its deliberately-paced momentum, is an exercise is one terrible decision that leads to the next one, and the one after that. And of the several fine performances, I call special attention to the one by Joey King, as the girl who seems sociopathic at one moment and shattered at the next, who can alternate giggling at cartoons with wailing that she’s a terrible person.

Black Box
Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour
Produced by Amazon Studios, Blumhouse Productions, Black Bar Mitzvah
October 6, 2020

Another Blumhouse release to Prime is Black Box, filmed with a small and largely Black cast by director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. (from a screenplay co-written by himself and Stephen Herman). Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is a widowed father living in the aftermath of a car crash that took his wife and shattered both his long-term and short-term memory, forcing his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine, a force of nature), into the childhood-warping role of his caretaker. It is an unsustainable life altered when Nolan is put into touch with Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), who has this brand new technology that may fully restore his memories by allowing Nolan a virtual walk inside what has been lost; the problem is that the visits to a past he has lost waken a strange, threatening entity that, though vaguely human, walks like a spider, with the sound of fracturing limbs. The monster is pretty effectively realized, but so is the gradual revelation of the actual explanation for all this, that hinges as much on character as the abundant technobabble. It all comes down, I think, to a closeup of a family photograph, as finally understood by a character who sees what it really pictures. Not a groundbreaking work, certainly not a four-star masterpiece, but one of smaller dimensions that this viewer avers edges substantially into good, once all the fully professional work of the performers is factored.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, His The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.