“Evil Eye”/”Nocturne”: Blumhouse follows haunted women, to mixed results

Evil Eye Nocturne Welcome to the Blumhouse Evil Eye // Nocturne (Amazon Prime Video)

A cursed Indian family and a musician undone by ambition end Blumhouse’s Amazon anthology on uneven footing.

Welcome to the Blumhouse remains a fascinating experiment in connecting four low-budget films under the auspices of the now-laudable Blumhouse brand, even if its end result feels more like four movies that weren’t quite polished enough for primetime but which nonetheless allow fresh new directors (all either women or BIPOC) to cut their teeth on a high-concept thriller. While Black Box is the clear winner among the four (and The Lie the clear loser), these last two films have their fair share of charms, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of good.

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First up is Evil Eye, an adaptation of an Audible radio drama written by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Rajeev and Elan Dassani, a thriller that mines tension out of Indian mysticism and inter-generational conflicts, with a healthy dose of domestic abuse and trauma thrown in. The film is centered around Pallavi (Sunita Mani), a 29-year-old veteran who lives in New Orleans and who bristles at her superstitious, domineering mother Usha’s (Sarita Choudhury‘s) insistence that she get married. She’s not like her mom; she’s fiercely independent and wants to wait for the right guy to come along, and doubts one will even come along at all. That is, until the handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati) comes into her life, a rich, considerate man who seems too good to be true.

These movies being what they are, we know that’s certainly the case: while Usha’s happy for her daughter at first, she starts to hear about the various ways Sandeep insinuates himself quickly into Pallavi’s life — talking her into quitting her job, buying her an apartment, and so on. She quickly grows suspicious of Sandeep’s motives, especially considering his behavior almost exactly mirrors that of an abusive relationship she had when she was young, one that she barely escaped with her life. What’s more, she slowly becomes convinced that Sandeep is her ex-boyfriend, resurrected and looking to control her daughter the same way he controlled her.

What works best here are the performances, particularly from Mani and Choudhury, the latter of whom channels heaps of motherly love and long-buried trauma into a compelling story of a woman haunted by the sins of men. While the two mostly carry on their relationship over the phone, these calls are well-staged and dig into some really interesting conversations about obligation, family, love, and trauma. As her caring, but skeptical husband, Bernard White is also a warm delight to watch (he reprises his role from the audio drama).

While still rare in American cinemas, the tension between Indian-American children and the expectations of their more traditionalist parents has long been a structure for what few Indian stories we get on screen. To twist it into a high-stakes stalker thriller with a kiss of the supernatural is relatively inspired, particularly as a vehicle for Choudhury to bring her considerable talents on screen.

It’s too bad, then, that the movie around Choudhury and Mani can’t quite rise to the level of its deeper thematic concepts. Maskati’s Sandeep can’t quite rise above the kinds of sneering, maniacal stalkers that populate the creakiest examples of the genre, and the Dassanis’ approach to the proceedings lacks the flash necessary to make it all look particularly interesting (barring one thematically-appropriate split-screen accentuating Pallavi and Usha’s physical and emotional distance during a heated phone call).

That’s a shame, really, given the script’s incredible potential to explore the kinds of dynamics common to East/South Asian families through a horror lens. Instead, those elements feel like surface details for a deeply familiar, anticlimactic stalker thriller that doesn’t even deliver the goods when it comes to its final fight. (Though the way chili powder becomes a life-saving component of a struggle to the death feels somehow fitting to this milieu.) Instead, the script and direction go for the most obvious choices imaginable, which makes for a boring hour and a half.

Evil Eye Trailer:

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If you’re looking for an actual horror movie amid the bunch, Zu Quirke‘s Nocturne might just fit the bill and is one of the stronger entries of the bunch. A haunting, unnerving blend of Black Swan and Whiplash, Nocturne follows a young musical prodigy named Juliet, (Sydney Sweeney) who starts her tenure at the same prestigious musical academy as her far-more-successful older sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). Frustrated at her lack of progress (she wanted to go to Juilliard), Juliet finds a glimmer of hope when she stumbles across the notebook of a fellow student who killed herself right before she was to take the stage for a prominent piano concerto. Amongst the sheet music is a series of strange, occult-folk sketches straight out of Midsommar, which prompts Juliet into a Faustian bargain that will feed her ambition — but at tremendous cost.

Unlike Evil Eye, what impresses here is Quirke’s decidedly giallo-influenced camera (literally, in many cases, as Juliet begins to have visions of yellow-tinged sunlight and corridors as the supernatural source of her newfound powers begins to take hold). What’s more, all these Dutch angles and A24-influenced compositions come into service to a reasonably compelling story of stress and ambition, centered around Sweeney’s intensely brittle lead turn. Each successive scene where she alienates a different person ostensibly in her corner — her parents, her music teacher, and eventually her sister — prove more disquieting than the Aster-esque horrors on display.

It’s a tale of caustic competitiveness, and while it takes some remarkably predictable turns, at least it ends on a disquieting, nightmarish final shot. And while there are some bumps along the way, it’s the closest any of the four films in this Welcome to the Blumhouse imprint comes to horror, and in so doing sets itself easily above the rest.

Nocturne Trailer:

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