It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks. Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste. I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum. Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way. Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in. For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.
Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.
Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani
Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest. Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible. This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television. Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone. That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.
Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby. The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own. Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband. Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati). The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger. Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.
I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think. Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach. Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true. We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit. The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.
What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed. Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations. As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart. I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.
As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills. It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them. Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity. All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome. Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there. Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.
Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.
Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson
Director: Zu Quirke
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time. I mean, every time. Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last. There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals. Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending. Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.
Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country. Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan. In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet. She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor. Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously. Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.
When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year. Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it. By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top. Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return. What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?
In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place. The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment. Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way. It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.
Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves. At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked. Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch. Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles. The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.
I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch. Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock. A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat. There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.