Back again with my reviews of the final two Amazon Studios / Blumhouse films for Horror Month!
Logline: An incredibly gifted pianist makes a Faustian bargain to overtake her older sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.
In this feature, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is a timid music student, overshadowed by her twin sister’s success, who begins to outshine all of her peers (and her sister) when she comes into possession of a dead student’s musical theory book.
From reading the description, it sounded like the project would be part Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, part Death Note, and part Black Swan, charting an artist’s descent into madness as she succumbed to the pressures (both physical and, potentially, supernatural) all around her.
Now, when I saw the trailer, I did have a few reservations about this particular “Welcome to Blumhouse” feature, as it seemed like a rehash of two similar horror projects that have been released recently. The projects that came to mind specifically are:
The Perfection (2020) – When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte seeks out Elizabeth, the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.
Ambition (2019) – A young aspiring musician preparing for a competition, is incredibly confident and gets herself involved in a frightening trap that she has to find her way out of.
That said, and very much like the other Amazon/Blumhouse project Black Box, I did try to go into this film with an open mind and no preconceived notions about what this film was or could be.
So, what did I think?
The Acting: For the most part, the acting is strong here, even if the characters are fairly generic and uninteresting.
I liked Dr. Cask (Ivan Shaw)’s moment where he asks Juliet: Why is Vivian better than you?
Juliet doesn’t know, so he tells her:
Because she plays like the devil is in the room.
It’s a suitably creepy moment, and well-delivered from Ivan Shaw.
The End: As brutal and nihilistic as the ending is, I really liked it, as it was a fitting end for the characters and left me feeling pretty gross, which is a compliment for a horror film.
Though, it really doesn’t make any sense if you think about it, and really isn’t accurate to the characters we have spent 90 minutes setting up, so, while I liked where we ended up, the writer needed to work on how the story got there.
What Needed Work
Exposition: There is a whole scene within the first ten minutes where Juliet and Vivian sit with friends and they literally spell out the entire plot:
Mona, the star student of the university, committed suicide suddenly, so now there is a competition to replace her in the upcoming showcase. Mona was acting strangely recently, and was always writing strange symbols on everything, including the walls of her apartment, and was kind of a loner.
I don’t mind this horror setup, but it is the lazy way it is spelled out to us that I took issue with. This is a feature film, so show, don’t tell!
More Setup: We hear in the beginning that Vivian was the first born, technically, and has gotten everything, while Juliet has not. Vivian has the best music mentor, got into Julliard, has a perfect boyfriend, while Juliet has none of those things.
However, we only get to see brief glimpses of jealousy before Juliet finds Mona’s theory book, and so we never really get into Juliet’s headspace to see how she is suffering.
I have said frequently that less-is-more in terms of horror films, and I stand by that. However, Nocturne is only 90 minutes and could have done with a little bit more setup, even just a few minutes (or pages added to the script).
The Soundtrack: There is essentially a Wilhelm scream that the director chooses to include at random transitions in the film. It’s sudden, and the volume is cranked to the max for these moments, which is entirely unnecessary.
Upon further research, the noise is apparently the opening to the song Unflesh by The Gazelle Twin (No, that is not a typo. The band The Gazelle Twin is an English electronic music project of composer, producer and musician Elizabeth Bernholz – according to Wikipedia).
Also, towards the end, when Juliet is in a trance, writing things in the theory book, there is a really goofy song that starts to play, which just made me laugh, instead of frightening me like it was supposed to.
The Dream Sequences: I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: I very much dislike dream sequences, especially when they are used for a cheap jump scare and add nothing to our understanding of the characters, the plot, the fictional world, etc.
The Theory Book: This is a cool inclusion, the dead girl’s music theory book that contains spells and dark predictions of the future… but nothing is really done with it. It just kind of exists, and maybe Juliet is losing her mind and imagining that it is giving her powers, but the book really doesn’t play a major role.
If you include a major plot device such as this, it is expected that you use it in a major way. Here, it is just kind of an afterthought and shoved in towards the end, without appropriate setup or payoff.
The Lead: Juliet is not likable, or relatable. She has no real personality (she even says as much at one point in the film) so it makes it hard to connect with her or care about her situation. This is especially bad for the film, as I am supposed to care about her plight and be rooting for her, or at least feel something for her, but I felt nothing but boredom while watching this film.
My takeaway is that there was potential here, from first time feature writer/director Zu Quirke, but ultimately it seemed much more like a rough draft of a script, than a completely coherent narrative.
No only was the plot one we have seen done much better in the past, but this film had so many different ideas all competing for the spotlight, that it never amounted to anything: not a horror film, not a dark drama, and not a supernatural piece, which, ultimately, made it not a very good movie.
My rating: 2/10
Evil Eye (2020)
Logline: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.
I was excited about this one, as the trailer made it seem like a twisted take on your typical boy-meets-girl love story, and emphasized Blumhouse’s commitment to showcasing a diverse cast of highly talented actors. However, at the time of this writing, Evil Eye holds the weakest IMDB User Review Score (4.6/10) of any of the “Welcome to Blumhouse” films. That is not to say it is the weakest of them all, just that the average IMDB user found Blumhouse’s other offerings more enjoyable this spooky Halloween season.
Just from a quick glance at the cast, I do have to say that I would have loved to see Freida Pinto in this as the lead, as her chemistry with Sarita Choudhury was phenomenal in the under-seen and under-appreciated Hulu series The Path. In that, Fredia Pinto and Sarita Choudhury were also playing a mother/daughter duo, so it was a real missed opportunity in my opinion. However, Sunita Mani is fantastic in her own right, and has proven herself in things like G.L.O.W. and No Activity, so she has had lots of opportunities to shine. Though, I was still a bit worried, as I had not seen her tackle a more serious role like this one before.
Our story starts with Usha (Sarita Choudhury) harassing her daughter, Pallavi (Sunita Mani), because she has not found a husband yet and Usa is worried that something terrible will happen if she does not find a husband for her daughter soon.
Pallavi is pretty unfazed by this, but it disturbs her mother, who was attacked when she was a young woman and does not want her daughter to end up in the same situation.
When Pallavi meets a mysterious man named Sandeep (Omar Maskati) who seems to be a perfect match, she falls head-over-heels for him.
However, when Pallavi introduces Sandeep to her mother, Usha fears that Pallavi has fallen victim to the Evil Eye, a curse that was put on her by her abusive ex-boyfriend.
Now, let’s talk about what worked in this film, and what could have used some improvement!
The Acting: It was well-acted, but that was not surprising due to the talent that had been assembled for this piece.
The Phone Call: The first phone call between Sandeep and Usha is suitably creepy, as Sandeep calmly and quietly threatens Usha, all while keeping up a pleasant façade.
What Needed Work
Disjointed: Whoever the writer was did not put together a smooth and coherent story.
We jump around so much that it is very hard to care about any of the characters. We hardly get any setup, as Pallavi and Sandeep first meet, he asks her out, and then we skip forward to Pallavi introducing her mother to Sandeep after they have been dating for four or five weeks.
I’m not necessarily saying we needed to see every single date that Pallavi and Sandeep went on, but it’s also hard to make it seem like they are in this intense relationship when we, as an audience, literally only get to see a brief glimpse of them as a couple.
We also jump from focusing on Pallavi, to focusing on Usha about halfway through the film. It was a strange shift, and seemed like an early draft of a story that someone scribbled in before deciding on the protagonist of the piece and the themes that they wanted to explore in the film.
Slow: Even at only 90 minutes, I checked the clock several times throughout the film. The story drags, and very little of substance actually happens.
Also, as stated above, the story is so unfocused that I was never really engaged by the narrative, or the characters.
Red Flags: There are so many red flags, so early in this relationship, that it is just hard to believe that our protagonist, Pallavi, a self-sufficient, college educated young woman, would not realize what is happening and pump the brakes.
An example of this is after just a few weeks of dating, Sandeep buys her expensive earrings, then is mad when she will not accept them. He asks Pallavi to move in with him a couple of days later, with no warning. Actually, he insists on it, and Pallavi agrees. Then, Sandeep asks Pallavi to quit her job, and so she does, which means she has to rely entirely on his money to do anything at all.
And, just a few weeks after that, Sandeep proposes and she says yes… off-screen. And this is without ever meeting his family, without knowing much of anything about this guy, or recognizing or acknowledging how quickly everything is moving.
Add to that, Sandeep is possessive, has anger issues, is controlling, and has a history of being drawn to toxic relationships… and those are just the red flags that are blatantly obvious.
Exposition: Just. So. Much. Exposition. Characters explain all of their motivations, give long speeches detailing their histories, and tell us how they are feeling.
This is such poor writing. I have said it before, but I will say it again: Show, don’t tell!
Sandeep’s Plan: I am probably thinking about this too much, but Sandeep’s plan makes no sense and was always doomed to fail. In the story, we learn that (SPOILERS) Usha killed him once by throwing him off a bridge, so what is to stop her from doing it again?
Or, even if Sandeep did get married to Pallavi, who is to say that someday, when Sandeep and Pallavi are visiting Usha and Krishnan, Usha won’t just poison Sandeep’s food? Or stab him in the neck with a kitchen knife? (END SPOILERS)
Sandeep wants to be with Usha, that is his endgame. So he decides to marry her daughter so that… he can be close to Usha? I guess? It’s never really explained, and the entire thing feels forced.
The End: (SPOILERS) Because Usha happens to have the same earrings that Sandeep gave Pallavi, Pallavi is immediately convinced that Sandeep is the reincarnation of her mother’s dead boyfriend. You know, the thing her mother has been saying this entire time, but Pallavi refused to believe. But then, once she sees the earrings (which, presumably, are available at any J.C. Penny) she realizes that her mother must have been right the entire time!
Huh? That came out of nowhere, is not set up in the story, and is entirely unbelievable.
Also, Sandeep doesn’t even try to hide it or deny it when he is confronted with this truth. He just attacks Usha and Pallavi, instead of trying to use something crazy like logic to defend himself. As Tom Segura says in his standup comedy bit: Dude, just lie a little longer! (END SPOILERS)
I really, really wanted to like this one, but just could not get into the story. The film is so disjointed, poorly paced, and the narrative elements are just sloppily done.
I cannot recommend this film, though I do think it is admirable that Blumhouse is bringing us stories featuring diverse casts from diverse filmmakers and storytellers.
Ultimately, if you do watch this film, think about how you would have told the story, and what the filmmakers could have done to structure this story in a more cohesive manner.
My rating: 1/10
And that does it for my Horror Month reviews! What did you see this month that gave you chills? Anything I should check out? Anything that failed to give you a fright? Let me know below!
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