Family is the unifying theme in Blumhouse’s four starkly different new horror films, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. In Evil Eye, Nocturne, The Lie and Black Box, families smother with overprotectiveness, cover up horrible truths to protect, foster a competitiveness that leads to Faustian bargains and sign up for dangerous experiments to see each other again. Two of the films (Nocturne and Black Box) are originals, while two are adaptations — Evil Eye is based on the audiobook of the same name and The Lie is a remake of 2015 German film We Monsters. Released as part of the ‘Welcome To The Blumhouse’ anthology, all achieve varying degrees of success in how they shape this theme to their vision. Here they are ranked, from worst to best:
4. Evil Eye
Directors: Rajeev Dassani, Elan Dasani
With Indian Matchmaking, which released earlier this year, Netflix turned arranged marriages into a bloodsport, with delusional suitors, pushy parents, and men who wanted to marry versions of their mother. Evil Eye tosses murder into the mix, but still feels like a watered-down version of the show, the scripted tension of its matchmaking-themed plot unable to capture the (melo)drama of real life. What it does capture well is the cloying, almost claustrophobic nature of Indian helicopter parenting. “Now that there’s nothing to worry about, you want something new to worry about,” Usha Kharti (Sarita Choudhury) is told. After years of worrying about the marriage prospects of her 29-year-old daughter, who lives in the US and conflates not knowing how to make chai with being independent, she now worries about the man she’s dating. His behaviour treads the fine line between innocuous and manipulative and Usha takes it upon herself to find out which it is.
Evil Eye works best when it plays on a parent’s very real (and rational) fears that their child could be trapped in a controlling, abusive relationship. It automatically becomes less convincing once it roots these fears in concepts like superstitious curses, astrological charts, karma and reincarnation. Usha’s actions, and by extension, the plot’s, are powered purely by emotion, leaving behind craters in place of logic. When the other characters are skeptical of her woman-on-the-verge deductions, you’re inclined to agree with them. The film’s final 20-minute stretch is riveting, if only it wasn’t preceded by much hand-wringing, phone calls that recycle the same arguments over and over, and a harebrained twist.
3. The Lie
Director: Veena Sud
The Lie begins with cutesy home videos of a young Kayla (Joey King) as a baby, going on road trips with family, getting her ears pierced. Cut to years later, when her best friend, Brittany (Devery Jacobs), falls off a bridge and dies while alone with Kayla. Is director Veena Sud hinting at how even the most wholesome kids can grow up to harbour a dark streak? Not really. The film wastes an opportunity to mine psychological horror from the ambiguity of whether the friend’s death was an accident or deliberately planned. Instead, there’s a full explanation early on in the film, with the rest dedicated to Kayla’s estranged parents staging a cover-up.
Coldness pervades The Lie, from the snowy terrain where Britney dies to the all-white fixtures of the family home to the family members themselves, all of whom are thoroughly unsympathetic. “Life for one family is over, it doesn’t have to be for ours,” rationalizes Kayla’s father (Peter Sarsgaard). This isn’t a tale of cornered parents who would do whatever it takes to protect their child, but one in which the entitlement is a genetic trait. Most of the film pivots around the petulant Kayla, who alternates between self-absorbed crying and self-absorbed whining. An investigation into Brittany’s disappearance begins simultaneously, but as most of it happens offscreen, there’s little sense of urgency or escalation. The titular lie doesn’t so much snowball as it does plod along, until a third-act twist that’s exasperating owing to its lack of foreshadowing.
2. Black Box
Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour
There are more than faint echoes of Blumhouse’s Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) in Black Box, which similarly features a young Black photographer undergoing a discombobulating form of hypnosis to dredge up his past. When he shuts his eyes, awakens in panic in a pitch-black room and asks, ‘What is this?’, you almost expect his therapist to reply: The sunken place. There’s also a Black Mirror vibe — once under hypnosis, a headset converts his retrieved memories into virtual reality experiences. Suffering from amnesia, Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) agrees to the experimental procedure, but things go wrong in the way only they can in the kind of sci-fi horror that melds unscrupulous scientists with unresolved trauma.
Black Box starts out genuinely compelling as Nolan jaunts into his subconscious, replete with shadowy lighting, a tense score and an eerie figure whose limbs jut out at odd angles, leave him increasingly uneasy. He lives out disturbing scenarios, at odds with the family man persona he’s crafted for himself. Is Nolan not the man he thought he was or is his mind playing tricks on him? The answer, which arrives around the halfway mark, firmly pushes the film from ‘derivative’ into ‘the filmmaker swiped a page from the Get Out script and thought no one would notice’ territory. The borrowed plotline lands shakily, derailing the rest of the film, which holds promise as a solid drama about the ways human connections can fray and be rebuilt. Athie pulls off a stunning tightrope act, but his character’s struggle to establish an identity mirrors the film’s eventual inability to crawl out from under the weight of Get Out.
Director: Zu Quirke
If films like Whiplash (2014), Black Swan (2010) and The Perfection (2018) drive home a point, it’s that the single-minded pursuit of artistic excellence is synonymous with the signing away of one’s life — hobbies take a backseat, relationships fall into disrepair and burnout is high. Nocturne takes that one step further — the signing away of one’s soul. Set entirely at a prestigious music academy, it follows pianists Vivian (Madison Iseman) and her lesser-talented twin, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney). Director Zu Quirke builds the tension between the sisters delicately. There’s no outright hatred, resentment creeps in gradually, like a discordant note in a symphony that grows louder over time. The academy, with its cut-throat pressure and coldly critical professors, propels Juliet’s feelings of inadequacy and believably contextualises her desperation to gain an edge. She finds it in the notebook of a recently deceased student, which contains more than just musical scores.
The film wisely steers away from outright depicting the entity with which she makes a pact, its identity tantalisingly alluded to through anecdotes. Instead, Nocturne is a human drama, the conversations between characters cutting deeper than any supernatural scares might. It’s easy to see that the story won’t end well for Juliet, but the cinematography drops clues, bathing her in a warm yellow glow each time she gets closer to her goal, like a spotlight that could burn you if you get too close. While Quirke’s confident directorial debut feels a little too reminiscent of Black Swan at times, the end product, with little touches like these, has enough of her own voice to feel original.