'Nocturne': Film Review

A rather familiar tune.
10/13/2020

Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman star in director Zu Quirke's feature debut, premiering online as part of Amazon's 'Welcome to the Blumhouse' series.

The deadly perils of music academies are a somewhat recurring horror-movie trope.

Witness Black Swan, Suspiria and its overlong 2018 remake, the recent gore-fest The Perfection (better known as "that Netflix vomit movie") and even the jazzy Whiplash, which is more of a thriller than a horror flick but still features lots of psychological terror and bodily harm.

In Nocturne, first-time writer-director Zu Quirke adds a few of her own twists to the evil music school genre, including a bitter sibling rivalry and a mysterious book of sheet music that may have been written by Satan himself. Yet it’s not quite enough to prevent this B-grade rendition from feeling rather familiar and unsuspenseful, even if stars Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria) and Madison Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) provide a decent level of tension throughout.

Released on Amazon as one of four features under the Welcome to the Blumhouse banner, Nocturne actually works better when it’s not trying to be a horror movie at all, with its best scenes simply about the high stakes, ultra-competitive world of classical music, where only a select few ever become renowned performers. But when the film tries to be scary, or even remotely creepy, it just feels generic — which is unfortunate because Quirke has something to say about how stress can bend and eventually break us, whether we’re great musicians or just plain old teenagers.

Sweeney plays Juliet Lowe, a talented pianist who’s unfortunately not as talented as her twin sister, Vivian (Iseman). The latter’s already received an early acceptance to Juilliard, has a hot and talented boyfriend (Jacques Coliman) and is set to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ famous Piano Concerto No. 2 at their school’s annual showcase.

All of this leaves Juliet, who’s disparagingly referred to as a “workhorse” and “sensitive accompanist” by her parents and teachers, vulnerable to a fair amount of jealousy. And so, when she happens upon a notebook left behind by a student known as “Mad Moira,” who committed suicide in the movie’s stylish opening sequence, and then realizes that the strange satanic drawings inside the book grant her special powers at the piano, well… you can sort of see where all of this is headed.

The problem with Nocturne is not necessarily how predictable it is — most horror movies go more or less where you expect. What doesn’t work are Quirke’s various efforts to unsettle us, whether it’s the many shots of Juliet’s hands literally heating up as the devil takes them over at the keyboard; repeated imagery of glowing orbs and demonic symbols that would be better off in the Goosebumps franchise; and a long sequence where the sisters clash during a clandestine rave party, replete with glowsticks and a cave, that’s just kind of lame.

By far the movie’s most chilling scenes are the purely dramatic ones where Juliet finds herself face-to-face with her music teachers, whether it’s the gentle and milquetoast Roger (John Rothman), whose career she tries to ruin, or the slick and demanding Henry (Ivan Shaw), who explains to Juliet that “music is a bloodsport” as a means to inspire her.

Sweeney is effectively unsettling in such sequences, as if her character were in the midst of a monumental burnout, and you wish Quirke included more straightforward moments like these instead of ones where, say, Juliet marches across the campus cradling a bunch of bloody tampons.

Iseman, who earned her horror bona fides in Annabelle Comes Home, is also strong as the uber-talented but smug sister who gets the comeuppance she may very well deserve, and her on-screen chemistry with Sweeney compensates for some of the film's schlockier effects.

Tech credits tend to be on the ordinary side, with nothing all-that distinctive about the filmmaking, set-pieces or locations. Like most Blumhouse productions, this one sticks to a handful of décors and characters in order to keep the budget below $5 million. The choice to use Saint-Saëns instead of other famous composers feels a bit more inspired, perhaps just so we can hear the school’s pretentious staff trying to pronounce the name in impeccable French.

Production companies: Amazon Studios, Blumhouse Television 
Distributor: Amazon Studios 
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, John Rothman, Ji Eun Hwang 
Director, screenwriter: Zu Quirke
Executive producers: Jason Blum, Fodlha Cronin O’Reilly, Matthew Myers, Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman, Lisa Bruce
Director of photography: Carmen Cabana
Production designer: Cecil Gentry
Costume designer: Christophe Oroza
Editor: Andrew Drazek
Composer: Gazelle Twin
Casting director: John McAlary 

90 minutes