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After cutting his teeth on award-winning commercials and earning festival exposure with short films, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. makes a solid feature directing debut with the absorbing mind-bender Black Box. Part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series of eight genre entries made for Amazon by Jason Blum’s television division, the thriller starts out with a firm footing in horror and becomes less distinctive as it shifts into more psychological and sentimental terrain. Still, the confident storytelling keeps you watching, as well as strong performances from Mamoudou Athie as a widowed amnesiac and Phylicia Rashad as a brilliant brain specialist playing God.
News photographer Nolan (Athie) is introduced shedding tears of joy as he holds his baby daughter for the first time. That pixilated image is swiftly revealed to be video he’s watching on a laptop. Like the family photo album he flips through, it’s part of an ongoing effort to jog his memory.
RELEASE DATE Oct 06, 2020
Nolan lost his wife Rachel (Najah Bradley) in a car accident that he survived, albeit after a concussive trauma left him in a coma for three days and declared braindead before unexpectedly regaining consciousness. His amnesia means his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine), now elementary school-age, has had to become the grown-up of the household, drilling him on basic routines, coaching him for professional meetings and curbing his inexplicable impulses to do things that were never part of his pre-injury life, like smoking.
Given his lack of progress with multiple medical consultations, Nolan’s doctor buddy, Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), encourages him to see Dr. Lillian Brooks (Rashad), a renowned neuropsychiatrist working at the same hospital, who has had significant success with an experimental program in memory retrieval. She hooks him up to a black box device that induces hypnosis, transporting him into a virtual headspace from which he can access various blocked memory pathways by clicking the crown on an analog watch.
These establishing scenes, enhanced by Brandon Roberts’ unsettling score and DP Hilda Mercado’s nervous handheld camera and murky lighting, are among the movie’s best. They show a man traveling into a past both familiar and foreign, with scenes like his wedding day compromised by blurred faces rendering everyone there unrecognizable. There’s also a menacing figure, a dark presence already seen in Nolan’s nightmares, which announces itself with the sinister sound of something crackling underfoot.
That character, billed in the credits as “The Backwards Man,” is played by actor-contortionist Troy James with astonishing elasticity that eschews VFX wizardry, summoning creepy echoes of Linda Blair’s famous spider walk from The Exorcist and countless J-horror variations since. It suggests an adversarial meeting of the id and ego, which gradually spirals into a fight for control of Nolan’s consciousness. “I run my mind, it does not run me,” is the mantra Dr. Brooks gives him to overcome his fear.
As Nolan’s black box sessions continue he becomes more disturbed by inexplicable elements like an apartment he never lived in and signs of physical violence toward his wife, something Gary assures him he would never have done. Osei-Kuffour Jr. and co-scripter Stephen Herman, who wrote the original story, slyly plant suspicion around Gary while introducing another woman with a young daughter (Charmaine Bingwa and Nyah Marie Johnson), whose links to Nolan’s memories confuse him further.
All this is prime Blumhouse material with faint parallels to Get Out, and for as long as explanations remain elusive, it’s slick and compelling, bolstered by a very capable cast. But the production company’s reputation for inventive low-budget horror also ends up being arguably the film’s biggest drawback. Once the horror atmosphere dissipates and the story turns to fixing the past, erasing the sins of the fathers and preserving the bond of a father and daughter held together by grief, the needling tension gives way to more standard telemovie entertainment.
A violent presence in Nolan’s memory bank starts taking over, though Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s restraint as a director keeps the scare factor to a minimum. But it’s novel to see a journey into the subconscious in which the cool sci-fi elements depict a world only marginally more technologically advanced than our own — unlike the dark mind tampering in such films as The Cell, Dreamscape or even Inception. I didn’t lose interest in Black Box, but I did wish it had maintained the edgy uneasiness of its first half throughout.
The Welcome to the Blumhouse series includes eight films from diverse emerging talents. Black Box premieres Oct. 6 alongside Veena Sud’s The Lie, starring Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard and Joey King. Following on Oct. 13 is Madhuri Shekar’s Evil Eye, with Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani and Omar Maskati; and Zu Quirke’s Nocturne, starring Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman. The second crop of four titles is to be announced.
Production companies: Black Bar Mitzvah, Blumhouse Television, Amazon Studios
Distributor: Amazon Prime Video
Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa, Troy James, Donald Watkins, Najah Bradley, Nyah Marie Johnson
Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.
Screenwriter: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., Stephen Herman; story by Herman
Producer: John Brister
Executive producers: Jason Blum, Aaron Bergman, Lisa Bruce, Marci Wiseman, Jeremy Gold, Mynette Louie, William Marks
Director of photography: Hilda Mercado
Production designer: Ryan Martin Dwyer
Costume designer: Eulyn Colette Hufkie
Music: Brandon Roberts
Editor: Glenn Garland
Casting: John McAlary
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