Yesterday, Blumhouse Television announced Welcome To The Blumhouse, a new anthology series of original genre movies a lá Hulu’s Into The Dark, but on Amazon and not based around holidays. That’s a simplified way of putting it, of course: Aside from being housed under the same programming roof, each film in the series is its own creation with a distinctive visual and storytelling identity. That’s thanks to creators like Black Box director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who makes his feature debut with the film after a run of successful festival shorts.
Black Box stars Underwater and The Get Down’s Mamoudou Athie as Nolan, a single father who’s suffering from memory loss after waking up from a coma caused by a car accident. As the film begins, Nolan agrees to undergo a very unorthodox treatment in hopes of recovering memories that will help repair his relationship with his young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine). The treatment puts Nolan into a trance and launches him into the deepest recesses of his subconscious, a concept that’s been explored in a handful of sci-fi films over the years. Osei-Kuffour, however, wasn’t looking to any of them.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a Memento or an Eternal Sunshine,” he tells The A.V. Club in an interview. “I wanted it to feel a little bit more hypnotic and grounded at its heart.” The Tisch School of the Arts graduate adds, “I come from a subtle, sensitive drama background, and one of the things that I really wanted to make sure I got right was making this a genre film [while] leaning into what I wanted my mark on the thriller to feel like.”
He cites M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable as an influence, as well as the films of Jordan Peele and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). “All three of those directors are able to balance the grounded, domestic side of things really well with suspense and tension,” he says. At its core, Black Box, which Osei-Kuffour co-wrote with Stephen Herman, is a story about family and the ties that bind—overlaid with hallucinatory horror and techno-thriller paranoia, of course.
“On the surface, it’s a suspenseful, chilling, psychological thriller about memory and identity in the aftermath of tragedy,” Osei-Kuffour explains. “But the heart of the story for me, and what really keeps the audience invested in the story is [Nolan’s] relationship with [his young daughter] Ava.” He adds, “the reason I connected to this story to begin with was that I’ve seen loved ones transform as a result of being parents. There’s something magical and heavenly about how a child pushes you to become a better person.”
Nolan does so with the help of a psychiatrist named Lillian (Phylicia Rashad), whose methods are either revolutionary or crazy, depending on who you ask—although Osei-Kuffour insists, “she’s not a mad scientist.” Rashad is an inspired choice for the role, but as Osei-Kuffour explains, it’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. “She’s somebody with a genuine interest in helping Nolan get better. And what better person to play that role than America’s mother?,” he says. “She brings this warmth, but also this sternness that [Nolan] needs in his life, because he doesn’t have any answers right now as to why he’s not getting better.” Still, he says,“I think people will be surprised at her performance in this film.”
And Rashad’s not the only actor exploring new sides of their onscreen identity in Black Box. “You see a completely different side” of Athie in the film, Osei-Kuffour says, citing the extensive conversations he had with each member of the cast in pre-production as the key to maintaining the “essence of what needed to happen” in terms of character as the film pushed harder into genre territory. “It was really about talking about relationships, talking about their arcs and talking about the heart and the subtext of any given scene,” he says, adding, “they’re all very truthful actors. And at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important, is just being truthful and vulnerable. “
Black Box premieres on October 6 on Amazon Prime.