NOCTURNE (2020)

Nocturne.jpg

Studio:      Blumhouse/Amazon Studios
Director:    Zu Quirke
Writer:      Zu Quirke
Producer:  Jeremy Gold, Marci Wiseman
Stars:     Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz, Rodney To, JoNell Kennedy, John Rothman, Brandon Keener

Review Score:

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Summary:

A classical music student uses seemingly supernatural sheet music to surpass her prodigy sister for a prestigious position.


Synopsis:     

Review:

The day before ¡°Nocturne¡± premiered on Amazon Prime, someone sarcastically tweeted, ¡°The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was dumping shelved movies no one knew what to do with on streaming and framing it like a special event.¡± There¡¯s just enough vagueness in there that the barb works for any number of releases, particularly in the horror space during October. Yet when you factor in a response from a different person who added, ¡°¡­after changing the titles to fool everyone who panned them the first time,¡± which is unmistakably a shot at ¡°The Lie,¡± the original dig seems specifically aimed at Blumhouse and Amazon¡¯s ¡®Welcome to the Blumhouse¡¯ campaign.

Blumhouse is certainly no stranger to having more product than they know what to do with. Just look up the sentences served in distribution purgatory by movies like ¡°Area 51¡± (review here) and ¡°Mercy¡± (review here) for the crime of having no better place to put them.

Facing a similar situation, but this time with eight orphans desperately searching for a home, Blumhouse and Amazon came up with a PR-savvy plan. The first four films (¡°The Lie,¡± ¡°Black Box¡± (review here), ¡°Evil Eye¡± (review here), and ¡°Nocturne¡±) were paired off as double features released online one week apart. Hashtags went up on social media while press releases promoted a fresh ¡®Welcome to the Blumhouse¡¯ banner. Artist ¡®Ghoulish¡¯ Gary Pullin created cool retro posters that outlets used for contests and giveaways. Gift boxes loaded with gourmet snacks, artisan cocktails, and branded bric-a-brac went out to influencers, media people, and maybe random regular folks too. Questlove even joined other performers for a virtual concert as part of the program.

I did chuckle at the tweet recounted above. It¡¯s a good joke. But after I¡¯m done snickering, I¡¯m swinging around to Blumhouse¡¯s side to defend what they¡¯re doing as a pretty shrewd and forward-thinking marketing move.

This belongs to a bigger discussion, but for the purposes of one paragraph, we¡¯ve got to confront the reality facing mainstream multiplexes. COVID-19 isn¡¯t only changing the present; it¡¯s reshaping the future of theatrical experiences. Continually rising ticket and concession prices have been gradually killing theaters anyway. The pandemic only pulls the plug on their life support. With sweet home entertainment setups increasing in affordability, more than ever moving forward, going out to the movies will be reserved exclusively for epic tentpole titles and bombastic superhero blockbusters.

Mid and low tier films need to find new ways to make their way in the wild. Blumhouse is just ahead of the game in figuring out how to turn mediocrity into a moment.

Can you picture putting up the dough to make an evening out of seeing something small like ¡°Nocturne¡± in a theater? Would you pay it any mind whatsoever if it were just another minnow dropped into a bottomless DTV ocean? Average movies have no shot at survival without the hullaballoo of treat boxes, organized watch parties, and phony FOMO. Maybe it¡¯s only P.T. Barnum chicanery inflating an air of exclusiveness around ¡®Welcome to the Blumhouse¡¯ titles. At least that effort brings eyes to ¡°Nocturne,¡± even if they then turn away and forget the film as soon as end credits start rolling.

¡°Nocturne¡± perfectly embodies the ¡°what else are we supposed to do with this?¡± mentality that merits making an event out of marginal movies. Set at a boarding school for gifted young musicians, ¡°Nocturne¡± joins ¡°The Perfection¡± (review here) and ¡°The Sonata¡± (review here) in what seems to be a burgeoning subgenre of thrillers centered on classical music prodigies. It¡¯s a so-so sibling rivalry story about one girl desperate to be better than her superior sister, with a slight supernatural twist. When I say slight, I mean it.

Juliet doesn¡¯t hate her fraternal twin sister Vivian. She¡¯s just jealous that Vivian got into Julliard and she didn¡¯t, Vivian has a boyfriend and she doesn¡¯t, and Vivian has an exceptional instructor for a mentor while Juliet slums it with a throwaway tutor predictive of a future filled with failure.

An unexpected suicide provides Juliet with a way to prove her piano skills can compete with Vivian¡¯s. The school needs someone to fill a prominent solo hole in the senior concerto. Juliet now has to upstage her sister to take her turn in the limelight. And the advantage she needs could come from a book of handwritten music and strange sketches left behind by the classmate who mysteriously killed herself.

The deeper Juliet dives into the notebook, the more her mind swims in cryptic visions. Occasional collapses into unconsciousness becomes commonplace, but Juliet¡¯s confidence grows. Meanwhile, peculiar mishaps plague Vivian. Is Juliet really controlling the course of their relationship, or is a demonic force amplifying Juliet¡¯s envy through evil?

If you¡¯re thinking along the lines of a film as unsettlingly insidious as ¡°Suspiria¡± or as artistically eerie as ¡°Black Swan¡± because of the similar setting and themes, you¡¯ll find ¡°Nocturne¡± isn¡¯t anywhere close with its dialed down darkness. It might be billed as a creepy chiller, but ¡°Nocturne¡± plays like someone pulled a B storyline out of a TV teen soap opera and stretched it into a film with the lightest pinch of paranormal activity possible.

Slow-going scenes feature bits about virginity, menstruation, peer pressure, drug use, clueless parents, cheating on boyfriends, sneaking out for parties, and sex with teachers. If only someone had a pregnancy scare too, ¡°Nocturne¡± would be a complete season of ¡°Degrassi¡± squished into one feature-length Halloween special. The only other difference is it focuses on less interesting background players instead of the characters you really care about. You know, the ones played by names like Drake and Nina Dobrev.

I say that for the sake of humor, but Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman actually are very good as the sisters. Sweeney gets most of the minutes as Juliet, although many of those drab moments are spent moping or spacing out. When she¡¯s called on to cry however, Sweeney still knows how to unleash the waterworks for maximum sympathy over Juliet¡¯s emotional struggles.

Iseman has less airtime, but arguably makes more out of her material. With minimal dialogue at her disposal, Iseman uses sly smiles and suggestive looks to toe a line between someone who could be a villain worth hating or simply a sibling who wants to annoy her sister even though she really loves her. We¡¯re not sure. Neither is Juliet. That¡¯s what makes Vivian compelling as a complicated foil, and that¡¯s thanks to how Iseman handles the balance in her portrayal.

¡°Nocturne¡± lands smack dab in the center of Blumhouse¡¯s overall oeuvre. Being a minor movie, it naturally doesn¡¯t have the wow factor of a bigger production like ¡°Halloween¡± (review here) or ¡°The Purge¡± (review here). It¡¯s not at the other end either, where completely lousy cut-and-paste creepers die unnoticed deaths. ¡°Nocturne¡± has okay acting, an acceptable premise, and enough allure to keep you from checking your phone too often. Those are the exact ingredients to exemplify what¡¯s typical of Blumhouse¡¯s midrange releases. And I can¡¯t think of another type of title that could use a boost from a made-up marketing campaign, even if the promotion ends up remembered more than the movies.

Review Score: 50