Oh the horrors of a horror film that’s not the least bit horrifying.
“Black Box” is pitched as a paranoid thriller, a sort of supernatural twist “Get Out” built on that over-used horror effect, the inverted human crab (seen above).
Hanging on an uneven (he gets better) lead performance by Mamoudou Athie (“Underwater,” “The Circle”), it gives away its secrets early and fails utterly at several thriller basics — “suspense” being paramount on that list for this Blumhouse (Amazon) bomb.
Athie stars as Nolan, a man we meet as he and wife (Najah Bradley) are cooing over their newborn.
Then he wakes up, sensing that he’s being choked out of his dream. And his little girl (Amanda Christine) is nagging him to eat his breakfast and get a move on.
His hand is bandaged, and in a moment or two, we see the hole in the wall of their Houston house. He has to be reminded of everything he has to do today — get Ava to school, job interview, “smile” when has that interview, pick Ava up, etc.
Nolan has suffered trauma. He’s being pitched “cognitive research” studies by phone. His doctor friend (Tosin Morohunfola) can give him a little help. But Nolan is lost.
He’s had a car wreck. His wife was killed. He’s lost his memories.
And he keeps having these nightmares, faceless forms attacking, choking, menacing him.
It’s only when he relents to these “studies” by a specialist (Phylicia Rashad) and her new gadget, which for purposes of the title and whatever double meaning you want to add, is called a “Black Box.”
“It’ll feel real,” she assures him. Just remember your mantra, “I run my mind, it doesn’t run me.”
Houston filmmaker Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour gives us a generic VR vision of Nolan and his dreams, which Dr. Brooks (Rashad) says she can insert memory-jarring prompts into, “bringing you back.” Worth a try.
Or…IS it? Yes, this is where he gets the faceless “crabs.”
Athie is a competent leading man, registering confusion and frustration (lashing out), but failing to make much of an impression as he does. In his character’s passive guise, he practically fades into the background, even in scenes where he’s the only human present. Underreacting to the extraordinary, taking the “confused” thing to such a degree that we wonder how much longer this eight year old’s going to be able to take care of him.
And yes, the kid upstages him.
The lack of suspense lowers the stakes, even as we figure out the mystery and shrug off the jeopardy facing all involved.
Rashad is believable, but her performance just isn’t big enough to raise the stakes and generate urgency.
And the pathos of this lost soul asserting himself and reclaiming his identity, the larger point here, is as emotional as an actor having his first read through of an appliance manual.
The tone and intent are here, but the execution of what goes on in and is caused by this “Black Box” is so lacking that it doesn’t deliver on any of its promises.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola
Credits: Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, script by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour and Stephen Herman. A Blumhouse film, an Amazon release.
Running time: 1:40