Nocturne, while imperfect and visually deficient, nonetheless represents the best yet of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse collab.
Part of the second batch of Blumhouse films premiering direct-to-streaming on Amazon, Nocturne, while far from perfect, at least shows what this distribution experiment could be capable of. As a showcase for new, up-and-coming talent, Nocturne is a big step up from both The Lie and Black Box, although so far all four films, including the brand new Evil Eye, have at least featured typically underrepresented groups both in front of and behind the camera. In a round table interview with the Los Angeles Times, writer/director Zu Quirke, making her feature film debut with Nocturne, mentions that she never pitched the film as a Young Adult narrative, presumably wishing to distance herself from terminology that’s become increasingly pejorative. But Nocturne nonetheless very much plays as a YA horror flick, a kind of baby’s-first-Faustian-bargain. The film follows two sisters, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman), both gifted pianists attending a prestigious music boarding school. Juliet is the wallflower, quiet and studious, while Vivian is the outgoing one, the immediate center of attention whenever she walks in the room. After a fellow student commits suicide, Juliet stumbles across the dead girl’s notebook, which contains a series of cryptic diagrams that seem to detail an occult path to stardom. Soon enough, Juliet is acting different; at first, others notice her newfound confidence, although before long things get predictably more intense.
Quirke is working with a fairly familiar box of tricks here; the boarding school setting can’t help but recall Suspiria, while Juliet’s slow descent into madness plays like Black Swan-lite. But Quirke elicits fine performances from her cast, and she writes dialogue for teenagers that sounds far more naturalistic than what one usually gets with this sort of thing. Sweeney and Iseman never tip their portrayals into camp, instead finding genuine pathos in this otherwise outlandish premise. In this way, while perhaps not her intent, Quirke is actually demonstrating the value of the YA genre with her film, the idea that young people’s emotions and interior lives are valuable despite their lack of worldly experience. And while the film never specifically mentions social media, it’s an implicit connection for a film that asks the question of how far one would go to become a star. It’s a shame, then, that the film looks absolutely awful, with shockingly bland digital cinematography and banal widescreen compositions. Nocturne is yet another low-budget horror film that has no business being filmed in scope, with so much empty space in the frame that it’s startling when Quirke casually uses a De Palma-esque split-diopter shot (one of the few examples of ostentatious style that this film could have ridden to considerable effect). The audience can see the film’s ending coming from a mile away, but Nocturne at least manages to encourage investment in its primary character’s fate. Instead of a boring slog, it becomes a tragic inevitability. If Quirke can get together with a better DP, she might have a really good movie in her.
You can currently stream Zu Quirke’s Nocturne on Amazon Prime.