Amazon’s ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ puts diverse filmmakers in the genre spotlight
Just in time for Halloween, Blumhouse TV and Amazon will unveil four psychological thrillers under the umbrella “Welcome to the Blumhouse.”
The anthology series, united by the shared themes of family, love and betrayal, will premiere on the streamer in two sets of double features beginning with the Oct. 6 launch of “The Lie” from veteran TV showrunner Veena Sud and “Black Box” from up-and-comer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. “Nocturne,” from British first-time feature director Zu Quirke, and “Evil Eye,” from “Jinn” cocreators Rajeev and Elan Dassani, will follow Oct. 13. The collection will be rounded out by four more films to be released sometime in 2021.
The series continues a busy year for Blumhouse Productions, which has emerged as a dominant force in the genre space. Earlier this year, prior to COVID-19 shutting down movie theaters, the company had already released controversial satire “The Hunt,” TV adaptation “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” and the hit reimagining of “The Invisible Man.” And it has continued to debut new films, including the Kevin Bacon thriller “You Should Have Left” on VOD, with the upcoming “The Craft: Legacy” set for VOD later this month and comedic slasher “Freaky,” with Vince Vaughn, planned for theaters.
But what’s particularly notable about “Welcome to the Blumhouse” is the talent assembled behind the camera. Each of the four films comes from an emerging filmmaker of color or female filmmaker, making the series a showcase for fresh directorial talent ready to take genre films in exciting new directions.
“Black Box,” co-written by Osei-Kuffour, stars Phylicia Rashad as a doctor who offers to help her amnesiac patient (Mamoudou Athie) regain his memory using the titular “Black Mirror"-like experimental treatment. “The Lie,” based on the German film “We Monsters,” follows a divorced couple desperate to help their teenage daughter get away with murder.
“As an adaptation, I changed two things,” said Sud. “The first was I definitely wanted the audience to be on this nonstop roller-coaster ride with the parents from start to finish as they’re grappling with the fact that their child committed a murder. And the other big change was really incorporating race and the American criminal justice system and what happens when a crime is committed and a brown man is the victim but how in America, that so often translates into him being the perceived perpetrator.”
“Nocturne,” which was inspired by Quirke’s experience playing violin competitively, stars Sydney Sweeney as a young pianist willing to make a deal with the devil to become a virtuoso. And “Evil Eye,” adapted from the Audible Original by Madhuri Shekar, follows an Indian mother who grows convinced that her daughter’s new paramour is connected to a dark memory from her past.
“The play was entirely phone calls, so we got it and said to ourselves, ‘We have to find a way to [make this] cinematic,’” said Rajeev Dassani. “We leaned on the idea of flashbacks as well as metaphorical visions. But we also asked ourselves, ‘How can phone calls give us drama?’ Phone calls allow you to have a character reacting honestly while the other character can’t see but the audience can. So we used that to our advantage.”
The Times caught up with all five directors to discuss genre influences, collaborating with Blumhouse and diversity in horror space.
What do you think about the status of horror today and how the genre is perceived?
Elan Dassani: In the past few years, especially with films like “Get Out,” “The Invisible Man” and “Paranormal Activity,” the horror genre has begun to take on a more direct social context that it hasn’t always had in the past, at least not as directly. I think it’s become more of a mirror to our society and a way to really speak to things especially as society has become more divisive. Genre is a way to talk about these things without directly talking about them.
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.: Genre has freed me up to actually talk about things that I’ve always wanted to talk about and use horror tropes to comment on issues. “Black Box,” at the end of the day, is really a story about a deeply flawed man that gets a second chance to be a better father. I used the black box and amnesia to comment on fatherhood.
Today, people can experience and comment and recommend [movies] in a much more profound way than they used to ... [that’s] why things like “Get Out” break so hard, because everyone’s talking about it around the world.
Quirke: It’s interesting how the idea of talking about social issues used to be the preserve of elevated sci-fi, social sci-fi in particular. And now it’s really spread across genre, particularly into horror and psychological thrillers. People are looking for more comment to be made than what was made with horror maybe 30 years ago. I think horror has been an amazing vehicle for exploring human truths. And a lot of human truths come from fear.
Veena Sud: Horror has evolved into a subversive genre in a way that we have not seen before, but genre’s always allowed for subversion. When I was a kid, I loved horror, and I think part of the reason is because the unexpected hero at the center was usually a woman. The woman was chased by her attacker but more often than not, she turned and faced the attacker and defeated him. It was the first time I saw a powerful woman hero who was not just hanging out in her bikini as a sidekick like a blow-up doll. I think horror has always allowed for a lot of play that’s not expected.
Rajeev Dassani: I think that the internet has had a profound effect on genre. Horror 30 years ago was sort of a cult phenomenon. A lot of horror wasn’t respected as an elevated genre. Whereas today, people can experience and comment and recommend [movies] in a much more profound way than they used to. And that’s affected what kinds of horror are successful and why things like “Get Out” break so hard, because everyone’s talking about it around the world. The world is more connected so people can watch it in different places and understand what horrifies people from other countries more easily, which I think is really amazing.
How is the process of working on an adaptation different from working on an original script? Is there pressure to deliver for the audience that already exists?
Sud: My job is to tell a good story, and if I start to think about polling anybody or being a politician, I will not tell a good story, guaranteed. I’ll just be scared the whole time and say nothing. So I think for me, adaptation is actually not that different than original. I just have a spinal cord on this sculpture versus nothing. It’s always [about] trying to respect and honor the original intention of the creator but it’s also like jazz: There’s a beginning note, and as a musician I have to add to it, not replicate it and repeat.
Elan Dassani: For us, it was nice to identify what we liked about the original script, the themes of obsession, self-doubt and victimhood, see how they played out in the audio-play format and figure out how to make that into a movie. We had the advantage that those two mediums are very different. It was nice to take something that was in this other context and figure out how to make it visual and how to tell the story with as little dialogue as possible and have those themes still come through.
Emmanuel and Zu, where did you get the idea to write “Black Box” and “Nocturne,” respectively?
Osei-Kuffour: I got the original draft from Stephen Herman, and I remember when I first came on board for the rewrite being drawn to ... the whole amnesia element of it. Whenever I do a project, I need to have a very personal connection to it, and so I was trying to find my way in. I started thinking about, “What if the story was about a deeply flawed man or father forced to confront the mistakes he made in his life? What if he gets a second chance to be a good father for the first time?” It’s something that I’ve seen happen to friends and family that I could really connect to.
Quirke: That’s amazing. Sometimes you need a bit of desperation as a writer, otherwise you spend too much time staring at the wall. Sometimes you get paralyzed by the number of options you have. And it’s just about finding that one thing which narrows options for you.
For me, I always knew that I wanted to do something with music because it’s been such a huge part of my life. And a few years ago, I came up with this idea of writing this murder mystery set in a British music school. They’re very small, there’s only about 100 kids in any one of them, so that’s about 10 kids your own age in any one year. That environment kind of fascinates me. But as I was writing, I realized I was being drawn more toward the uncertain and the supernatural than the certainty-based principles of a murder mystery. I realized that this was actually a movie about artistic ambition. Not the artistic ambition of a great musician but that of a very normal 17-year-old who probably doesn’t have what it takes and is realizing that. And the deal-with-the-devil narrative naturally superimposed itself onto that.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for horror representation to be more inclusive?
Rajeev Dassani: Prior to the streaming age, there’s always been this pressure on cast-ability. There’s this pressure on name [recognition], someone who can bring in box-office numbers. And there’s been a real struggle for Hollywood to perceive people of color or women as real box-office draws. I think streaming has allowed us to understand and see more than ever before that people are craving more interesting stories, stories that are both universal and specific to a certain culture. I really do credit the Amazons and Netflixs of the world for us being able to tell these more specifically targeted narratives.
Elan Dassani: I think it’s interesting how the horror and supernatural genres of the past used to tell stories about underrepresented people by using aliens, creatures or zombies. It was literally a way to tell those stories in a Hollywood that wasn’t telling them.
Sud: I’ve been around for a while and thank God there was “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” But our industry actually looks more like the Trump administration than it really looks like America. And in order for that to change, the industry has to change. Unless the people who actually greenlight things are true allies, like Jason [Blum], or they represent us, it’s not going to change. So my challenge to the industry is to be rigorous in looking at the executive branch and if you want change. Change the composition to represent this country. Because I have pitched from here to forever stories that never get greenlit. I can say I want this story with a person of color or a woman as the lead but unless it gets a greenlight, it’s irrelevant.
There is a whole ecosystem here that is not just about artists working really hard and trying to prove ourselves. We’ve done it and the rest of the industry needs to stand up now [too].
Osei-Kuffour: I agree. At the end of the day, it’s really about the gatekeepers. And speaking personally, I think it’s really, really rare for a black director to get his first feature just off of a short film, which was the case for me. I’m hoping that the success of this film will give other studios the confidence to just give directors of color a shot because it happens all the time with white directors. And that plays a huge role in representation onscreen.
Quirke: That’s definitely true. It’s about representation in the public eye as well. When you’re talking about trying to represent diversity, the most important categories are the heads of departments and crews. You can put people of color and women in front of the camera but the people making these movies are the people who have creative control over what goes on in them. And it’s also important that we see people being recognized at the very highest level of filmmaking, like the Oscars. It’s definitely gotten better in the last few years and I think a lot of that has to do with the Academy making a lot of changes. But we’ve still got big problems, especially when it comes to female directors and cinematographers. We don’t see any representation in those categories year after year because people don’t view women as working at that level.
Rajeev Dassani: There’s a perception that a Black director has to do a Black story, an Indian director has to do an Indian story and a woman director has to do a soft story, which I think is completely unfair because all of us are capable of doing a very wide range of things. But a big part of [being able to do so] is walking into a room and that assumption not being made immediately.
Sud: We are at such a turning point in our industry and in our country. Let us not just put the burden on the artists to represent but put the burden on the industry to change. One of the gatekeepers I want to mention is the critics. Far too often white male critics are filling the ranks of entertainment journalism and not seeing the value of our work because the work does not speak to them. The press is the link between the hard work that we do and our audiences. If we are not covered or if our work is disparaged or not given credence, it dies. There is a whole ecosystem here that is not just about artists working really hard and trying to prove ourselves. We’ve done it and the rest of the industry needs to stand up now [too].
What has your experience been as a genre filmmaker?
Sud: I think that for all of us, you have to be twice as good to be thought of as half as deserving. Usually at events I’m the only brown face there or I’m the only woman or I’m one of two. And so I feel very happy today to be in this space with my fellow filmmakers.
Rajeev Dassani: Most of our success has involved bringing a social or diverse element to genre, and we’ve seen a real hunger for it. We made Netflix’s first Middle Eastern series, “Jinn,” which is a supernatural teen show with entirely brown faces, entirely in Arabic, and it was a real joy to see how many people embraced it. I think ultimately our goal as filmmakers is looking for something authentic and unique to give to an audience. All the challenges that everyone’s talked about are there, but I think there’s also an opportunity to use genre to tell these stories in a new way.
Quirke: I’m at the start of my career really. I don’t have war stories and I haven’t encountered anything personally that would suggest [discrimination] overtly, although of course you feel it sometimes.
Osei-Kuffour: Yeah I’m the same. This is my first feature, which just happens to be a genre film. I hope it gives viewers a different shade of the Black experience, especially in the times we’re living in. I hope it helps people empathize with what a real Black family is in a different way than what you might see normally.
What was it like collaborating with Blumhouse?
Osei-Kuffour: We had a limited amount of time to produce but I would have to say that Blumhouse is an artist-first company. When they gave notes, they weren’t mandates. They were like, “We think this might help you tell your story even better.” And if it worked I included them, but if it didn’t, I didn’t. I think they really valued my vision.
Rajeev Dassani: It did feel very artist-driven. It was amazing how much they really wanted our perspectives. They’re so prolific, they’ve done so many different kinds of films and they understand the genre. It was really helpful getting a sense of [marketing and audience]. While we always stuck to our vision, ultimately these are products to be sold and we’re very aware of that.
[“Nocturne”] was never billed to me as a YA movie or a woman’s movie or a movie aimed at girls. It was just treated as a story, which was the way I always treated it in my head, and I’m grateful for that.
Quirke: It’s the same issues on every movie, right? You never have enough time or quite enough money. And Blumhouse is amazing at making everything count. [“Nocturne”] was never billed to me as a YA movie or a woman’s movie or a movie aimed at girls. It was just treated as a story, which was the way I always treated it in my head, and I’m grateful for that.
Sud: Jason gives us final cut, which is unheard of. It means he trusts the artist 100%. And when you trust us, you teach us to not work in fear.
How did you decide on the talent to appear in these films?
Sud: Mireille [Enos] and I were looking for something to do after “The Killing.” She and Peter Sarsgaard had done this extraordinary episode [of the show] together where he’s on death row and she had put him there and was thinking she had made a mistake. These extraordinary two people filled an entire episode just talking, and at the end Mireille said, “Let’s do a love story for the next one.” So this was my version of a love story.
Quirke: Sydney Sweeney and I met in the audition room. She just brings so much to the role. She and Madison Iseman, who plays her sister Vivian, did a chemistry casting together and the two of them were just so incredible from the moment they got in a room together. We later found out that they went to high school together, which was a funny coincidence.
Osei-Kuffour: They say casting is 50% of directing, and I think like everybody else here I got really lucky with my cast. When I wrote the script, Phylicia Rashad was at the top of my list but I wasn’t sure if she would do my film because I’m a first-time director. She comes across as really trustworthy, she carries the dignity that someone of Dr. Brooks’ stature would have, but she also has this maternal sternness. She was really humble, kind and collaborative.
Rajeev Dassani: I think in our case we had the tricky challenge of needing people to embody multiple things simultaneously, and that’s difficult to find. All of our cast was our first choice but Sarita Choudhury, who plays Usha, she was our first choice by far because that character needs to both embody the typical overbearing Indian mom but then have this surprising element because she’s survived violence in her past.
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