Synopsis – An incredibly gifted pianist makes a Faustian bargain to overtake her older sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.
My Take – It is sad truth that despite the promising nature of the Amazon/Blumhouse venture, appropriately titled Welcome to the Blumhouse, The Lie, Black Box and Evil Eye, the first three films of the anthology series have all been collectively disappointing and disheartening to such a level that it wouldn’t be surprising if genre fans would decide to skip the upcoming releases all the way.
However, astoundingly I must request everyone to hold on, they seemed to have reserved the best for last, as this fourth and final film of the 2020 segment, is the best of the bunch, by far, actually.
Though this supernatural horror film upon first look might seem like a gratuitous cover version of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky‘s 2010 psychological horror film, Black Swan, but here first time writer-director Zu Quirke makes the proceedings compelling by taking an intense sibling rivalry, mixing it in with a lot well-worn occult tropes, and allowing the results to slowly seep over the audience.
Sure, we have previously seen films revolving about competitive music schools before, however, this film, boosted by quality performances from the cast, maintains an unsettling tone throughout, making it worth watching for anyone willing to witness a teen horror story with layers of family patriarchy and expectations for loyalty.
The story follows Juliet (Sydney Sweeney), a piano-playing teenager, who has always been under the pressure to upstage Vivian (Madison Iseman), her exceptionally talented and comparatively more free spirited fraternal twin. With her anxiety issues doubling down with the news that Vivian got accepted into The Juilliard School, despite the both attending the same arts academy.
But an opportunity to upstage rises in the wake of the school’s virtuoso music student, Moria (Ji Eun Hwang), who committed suicide just weeks before the major talent showcase, hereby forcing the administration to hold additional auditions once again to fill the slot.
While Vivian seems like the obvious choice to do that, Juliet decides to take the upper-hand when she discovers an eerie notebook that belonged to Moria, containing what appears to be the secrets to performing exceptionally. And as Juliet begins to improve, her personality begins to shift, as the evocative drawings in the book begin to come to life, some with bloody consequences.
Like I mentioned above, this is the most elegant addition to the Welcome to the Blumhouse films so far and it is not just because of its modern display of classical music education and career. But because the tragic relationship between two ambitious young women who trying to succeed in a cutthroat, predatory, and exploitative artistic world makes for a pithy up-to-the-minute allegory.
Here, director Zu Quirke maintains a tone that is somber yet intense and subtlety layered making it a very intriguing experience. And successfully evokes moods such as toxic jealousy and eerie foreboding in the realistic dialogue and increasingly suffocating environment that surrounds Juliet and Vivian. With the passive aggressive fight for a spotlight solo draws an incredibly tense tone that hits all the right keys in a portrait of dire determination.
Sure, knowing the quintessential lessons that follow any agreement written in blood, it’s obvious that Juliet ’s fallen heroine will pay the price eventually, but it’s a familiar surprise to see just what having it all costs her in the end.
Thankfully, the film does properly qualify as a horror unlike previous Welcome to the Blumhouse ventures. But they are not of the jump scares variety, as the horror here is more gradual and starts to slowly ramp up as the story moves along. It’s easy to figure out what the source of the terror is, but the appeal to the story is to see how it’s going to affect the relationship between these two sisters. And one of the best choices this film makes is the decision not to reveal the specifics of the demonic force in Juliet’s head that fuels her rise to stardom. This ambiguity makes itself known through an abundance of small unresolved ironies, minor events in the film that play out almost too perfectly.
Personally, the one downside to the film I found was the supposed creative shot angles and lighting decisions the film takes, which include a demonic sun circle imagery that’s more than a little cheesy, even though they are incorporated in unexpected ways they come out as unnecessary.
The other being the character of Vivian. Sure, we see her as more accomplished, but from the eyes of Juliet. And as the film progresses on, we do come to know that she too is flawed in her own way. I truly wish the film could have elaborated more on that factor, hereby giving her twin sister a clearer rationality for taking her down.
Performance wise, there is no doubt that Euphoria breakout star Sydney Sweeney is the best part of the film. Here, Sweeney competently channels the jealousy and resentment with a measured performance that keeps you very much intrigued till the end. Madison Iseman also capably holds her own against Sweeney‘s more complex performance, and convincingly portrayals a character who is much more than the perfect student every thinks she is.
In supporting roles, Jacques Colimom, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz, and Brandon Keener also manage to hold their own. On the whole, ‘Nocturne’ is a genuinely unsettling horror thriller build under a symphony of suspense, obsession, and resentment.
Directed – Zu Quirke
Rated – NR
Run Time – 90 minutes