Amazon’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series, produced by Blumhouse Television, debuted its first two films last week (we reviewed the sci-fi entry, Black Box; the other, The Lie, is a psychological drama). Two more arrive this week, and with them the standout of the series so far: the haunting Nocturne.
Nocturne is the debut feature of writer-director Zu Quirke, who taps into some well-worn horror tropes but does so in a way that feels edgy and fresh: sibling rivalry (further amplified to twin rivalry), the cutthroat world of teenagers (further amplified to the cutthroat world of teens in the performing arts), sinister goings-on at a boarding school, and a book that conjures dark magic. There are also stylistic influences (Suspiria especially, but Black Swan and Carrie also come to mind) and creative choices (including a deliberately jarring array of sound cues) that elevate Nocturne above the other “Welcome to the Blumhouse” films—the rest of which are fine but do share a general vibe of being made-for-TV movies, which technically they are.
Quirke is clearly a talent to watch, as are Nocturne’s young stars, whose faces might be familiar: Madison Iseman (the new Jumanji films, Annabelle Comes Home) and Sydney Sweeney (The Handmaid’s Tale, Euphoria). Fraternal twins Vivian (Iseman) and Juliet (Sweeney) are hardly BFFs, the result of a fierce rivalry over who’s a more gifted pianist—allowed to fester by their rich, superficial parents, and made even worse when Vi’s natural abilities put her squarely in the lead. By the time they’re seniors at their elite boarding school, Vi has everything Juliet wants: the big solo at a prestigious concert, acceptance at Juilliard, the admiration of the school’s toughest teacher, a devoted boyfriend, and an effervescence that suggests everything just comes easy to her.
Staring down a life of being the perpetual second banana, as well as mediocre by comparison in the field she’s devoted her entire young life to pursuing, Juliet seethes, pops anxiety meds, and is subjected to patronizing input like “if we all played concertmaster, we’d never have an orchestra.” Things begin to change when she happens upon a notebook left behind by “Mad Moira,” a classmate whose musical talent eclipsed even Vivian’s, but who jumped to her death from a school building just six weeks prior.
It’s ostensibly a book filled with Moira’s music theory notes, but its pages also contain drawings as mysterious as they are menacing. “It’s like it’s talking to me,” Juliet realizes as the book’s sinister (and very possibly Satanic) powers begin to bleed into her life—and though Juliet’s the one under its spell, it’s soon clear that neither twin is going to escape the book’s hunger. Nocturne’s tension is as carefully calibrated as Juliet’s piano scales, and in a cast that’s overall very good, Sweeney makes an impression as a mousy girl who just needs the smallest push to embrace something she knows contains pure harm.
This week’s other new “Welcome to the Blumhouse” movie is Evil Eye, directed by Elan and Rajeev Dassani and adapted by Madhuri Shekar from her own audio drama. Knowing its origins helps explain why so much of the movie consists of phone conversations between a mother (Sarita Choudhury) in Delhi and her daughter (Sunita Mani, who also stars in our recently reviewed Save Yourselves) in New Orleans—which is unfortunately not the most dynamic or cinematic way to tell a story. While it’s nice to see Mani, who’s often cast in comedic and/or supporting roles (see: GLOW, Mr. Robot), play a glamorous leading lady, Evil Eye’s plot about past trauma, abusive relationships, and reincarnation isn’t much of a puzzle; it’s more of a trudge toward an inevitable showdown with a lot of long-distance chatter in between.
“Welcome to the Blumhouse” movies Black Box and The Lie are now streaming on Amazon; Evil Eye and Nocturne arrive on October 13.
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