With all four 2020 films in the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series available this week—the second half will be launched at a TBA time in 2021—it’s easier to see the complete picture of what Jason Blum and Amazon Prime Video are offering with this feature film anthology. The first two films, “Black Box” and “The Lie,” were disappointments, and the second pair only barely rises above that standard. While it’s slightly promising at least one of the offerings here has some elements worth recommending, both of these films suffer from a common problem in Blumhouse’s “Into the Dark” series in that they don’t justify a feature-length runtime. They both feel distinctly like episodes of an anthology series that have just been pushed and pulled to meet a 90-minute requirement. At least one of them finds some interesting characters and themes to explore within that stretch; the same can’t be said for the other one.
The best of the four films so far under the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” banner is this supernatural thriller from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani, producers of the Netflix series “Jinn.” More interested in engaging with the impact of trauma and cycles of toxic masculinity, “Evil Eye” is the kind of film that most viewers wouldn’t know was a horror feature for the first hour unless they noticed Jason Blum’s name before they hit play. It features a trio of strong performances in the story of a mother who may be so traumatized from a horrible incident in her youth that it has completely driven her insane, or her attacker from so many years ago could have actually been reincarnated in her daughter’s new boyfriend.
Usha (the excellent Sarita Choudhury) wishes that her daughter Pallavi (Sunita Mani) would respond to her mother’s set-ups with successful, handsome young men, but nothing seems to work. Usha believes strongly in astrology, despite her husband Krishnan (Bernard White) considering all the star charts she fills out for their daughter to be pretty silly. Usha sets Pallavi up on another date, but the young man is caught in traffic, and Pallavi catches the eye of a smooth talker named Sandeep (Omar Maskati).
Before you know it, Pallavi and Sandeep are in a committed relationship, discussing things like moving in together and even marriage, but Usha senses something is wrong. She convinces herself that Sandeep is the reincarnation of the man who stalked her and nearly killed her decades earlier. When she discovers that Sandeep was born nine months after that man died, her conviction grows even stronger, but Pallavi keeps falling deeper in love and Krishnan presumes that Usha is just reliving her trauma now that her daughter may finally have a partner. The best scenes in “Evil Eye” allow this question to hang in the air, representing Usha’s pain from her near-death experience as something that has shaped her life and how she sees every man who enters Pallavi’s life.
Of course, being a Blumhouse movie called “Evil Eye,” it’s not a spoiler to say that this is not a movie about a woman discovering all of her beliefs in reincarnation and astrology are wrong. And Madhuri Shekar’s script has a tendency to take a bit longer than it should to get where everyone knows it’s going. After introducing at least three engaging, well-rounded characters—Maskati isn’t bad but Sandeep feels more like a device than the other three—“Evil Eye” starts to spin its wheels when it should be building tension. A crucial conversation in the structure of the film between Pallavi and Usha takes place on a phone, and while the narrative dictates they must be in separate places, it drains what should be an emotional climax in such a way that one starts to wonder if the film wasn’t made post-pandemic. However, “Evil Eye” feels denser and more heartfelt than any of the other three “Blumhouse” films, even if it’s a little too thin overall. [B-]
Finally, there’s Zu Quirke’s “Nocturne,” a movie that can’t decide if it’s a YA “Black Swan” or a YA “Suspiria”—yes, there is a big difference. Quirke struggles to maintain tone through this story of a young piano student who might be going insane, but at least “Nocturne” is a legit horror movie, working in a supernatural register that the other three films avoid. Still, that’s about the only praiseworthy element here as the performances are flat, the direction is uninspired, the story is predictable, and, again, one senses this is a short film or television episode stretched out to a numbingly boring runtime.
“Nocturne” opens with one of its most striking sequences as a young musician practices in her room. The camera pulls back to reveal odd symbols carved into the wall. The musician puts down her instrument, walks to the balcony, and jumps. Not long after, another student at the same school named Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) finds the dead girl’s notebook and discovers prophetic drawings that start to mirror her own life. She gains inspiration from the dead student, taking risks as a musician and in her personal life that she would never consider before. Is the quiet, shy pianist who has always stood in the shadow of her more talented twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman) finally coming into her own? Or will she meet the same fate as the opening scene?
Quirke’s film is at its best when it’s allowed to be surreal and foreboding with intense sound design and visions of a violent fate for Juliet and possibly Vivian, but it’s also too often a flat story of life at a music school, and there’s where “Nocturne” can’t find the melody at all. Juliet ditches her old-fashioned teacher Roger (John Rothman) for a more daring one (Ivan Shaw, giving the most interesting performance in the film); she opens up to Vivian’s boyfriend Matt (Jacques Colimon) and possibly tries to steal him; she fights with her sister over what to play, even copying her choice for an important recital. Essentially, “Nocturne” is a truly bizarre coming-of-age story about a young woman whose sister gets into Juilliard instead of her, and how that leads her to push envelopes that she wouldn’t have otherwise considered. It may also be about a deal with the devil.
There is some striking imagery in “Nocturne,” especially in its closing moments, but there are also incredibly long stretches in which it’s impossible to care about what’s happening to Juliet. Sweeney has been directed to such a flat performance that Juliet is a non-character for most of the runtime, pushed and pulled by the strange happenings around her but never interesting on her own terms. Maybe the point is that people who have dedicated themselves to a life of constant practice and no social growth become lifeless and interchangeable, but that’s underdeveloped and too thin a skeleton on which to hang an entire horror film. [C-]