Over the past two weeks, I’ve already looked at three films that genre movie-making factory Blumhouse has released directly to streaming as part of a series timed to the Halloween season. Two of them (Black Box and Evil Eye) are pretty good, while one of them (The Lie) is embarrassingly bad. Despite the differences in overall quality, none of those three films could be adequately classified as the horror movies they were being marketed as, with all of them more easily classified as psychological suspense thrillers. The final one of these (until next year, anyway, when Blumhouse intends to do this again), Nocturne, is not only the best of the bunch, but also an actual horror movie. Cleverly written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Zu Quirke, Nocturne finally delivers on Blumhouse’s ambitious promise to scratch genre fan’s seasonal movie itch.
Performing arts high school senior Juliet Lowe (Sydney Sweeney) lives in the constant shadow of her preternaturally talented twin sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). Older than Juliet by two minutes, Vivian is heralded as a classical music prodigy en route to superstardom. Although both are pianists, the respected, popular, and outgoing Vivian has had more opportunities to advance her career, while Juliet is routinely written off as someone who doesn’t try hard enough, often being told by her instructor (John Rothman) that the most she could aspire to is being a teacher or an accompanist. While Julie tries to remain supportive, she secretly craves everything her slightly older sister has: talent, respect, a boyfriend (Jacques Colimon). Julie’s fortunes begin to turn a corner when she lucks into a music theory notebook once used by Moira Wilson (Ji Eun Hwang), a young woman who took her own life six weeks before she was due to perform a high profile solo at the school’s year-end showcase. The mysterious notebook – filled with symbols and ominous looking sketches – helps Julie to take her craft to another level, but at what cost to her own sanity and the well being of her sibling?
Films about professional and sibling rivalries growing increasingly out of control aren’t anything new, but British filmmaker Quirke provides Nocturne with a lot of life, energy, style, and genuine scares. On only the most passing of glances, Nocturne bears an oh-so-slight resemblance to Netflix’s dark tale of musical ambition from last year, The Perfection, but the comparisons don’t go beyond the superficial. If anything, Nocturne is more indebted to the likes of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the recent works of Ari Aster, and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (which was also produced in part by Jason Blum). The Faustian idea of unwittingly selling one’s soul and humanity for the sake of art and unconscious revenge has been done before, but it takes a true talent to make Nocturne into something that feels fresh, vibrant, and original.
Quirke proves particularly adept at building tension throughout Nocturne, even though it’s easy to see where the story’s going to end. Utilizing some nifty camera tricks and outstanding use of both match and smash cuts, Nocturne is a visually calculated piece of work that’s able to keep viewers on their toes, even when they have a distinct sense of the journey in advance. Quirke proves unafraid to employ jump scares and surrealist freak outs with equal aplomb, and both gambits are used wonderfully here. Quirke also doesn’t shy away from darkly comedic visual gags (Julie’s omnipresent and tacky sweatshirt, sensationalistic news headlines, a ridiculous looking sculpture on the school grounds) that add a bit of levity to the material. Perhaps most importantly for a film about the power of music and a quest for greatness in the arts, Quirke makes sure the film’s sound design and score is both contemporary and classical in equal measure, with particularly adept use of Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill.”
While the plot is predictable, the writing remains as sharp as the direction, backed up by strongly written characters that are well performed. Sweeney and Iseman have exceptional antagonistic (and sometimes even friendly) chemistry. Julie is made out to be the sympathetic pushover that gradually gets drunk on her newfound powers, but Vivian is just as fascinating, coming across as a driven, ambitious, and slightly pretentious go-getter that still isn’t worthy of scorn, derision, or karmic harm. No one watching wants to see this sisterly relationship destroyed, but Quirke gives the viewer reason to invest in the unavoidable conflict. Once things take darker, gorier turns, Quirke has made it easy to emotionally buy into the rising nastiness and care about what’s happening.
Taking Napoleon’s axiom that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever” to its most extreme conclusions, Nocturne is a highly entertaining and elegantly composed B-movie horror flick. It’s basically a Tales from the Crypt episode writ large and with a modernist sheen, but far more established filmmakers have attempted such things with far lesser results in recent years. It establishes Quirke as a talent worth keeping an eye on in the future, and offers scare starved viewers something worthy to watch in the lead-up to the most frightening time of the year. Although, one could argue that all of 2020 has been frightening, making Nocturne an unintentional allegory for our current time.
Nocturne is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.