The fourth and final movie in the October lineup of the Amazon horror anthology Welcome to Blumhouse is by every definition the best of the bunch. “Nocturne” is a music-themed supernatural horror written and directed by Zu Quirke that embraces shades of “Black Swan” and “Whiplash” in its exploration of the evil and dangers associated with seeking artistic perfection. Starring Sydney Sweeney and Madison Iseman, “Nocturne” is a slow burn haunting experience with a built in thematic warning to audience as well as some supernatural flair that feels like the most cinematically complete film in the Welcome to Blumhouse lineup. While maybe too overly familiar for some tastes, for me “Nocturne” is a shining example of Blumhouse Studio’s eye for chilling genre tales with real world relevance and continues the studio’s embrace of more mature genre offerings.
“Nocturne” stars Sydney Sweeney as shy but dedicated musician Juliet who has long been overshadowed by her more successful twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman). After a student at their school commits suicide, thus opening the door for another musician to take her place, Juliet comes into the possession of the student’s book where she finds the key to a supernatural ritual designed to bring her success, but at a cost. As the allure of praise and admiration from her peers and teachers beckons, Juliet must decide if success is worth compromising her integrity and even her humanity. While the supernatural element is unique to this film, a lot of the plot does sound like the story of Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant 2010 psychological horror feature “Black Swan” where a shy woman suffers mentally as she seeks perfection in playing the lead in “Swan Lake”. The idea of suffering for your heart was also tackled in another brilliant film from Blumhouse “Whiplash” in the last decade so this concept is nothing new, but man its it fantastic every time it gets used. With “Nocturne” the motivation is more or less the same, a young musical talent wants to supersede someone or be acknowledged for their talent and is willing to do what she must to ensure her hard work is not in vain. However, the addition of the supernatural item that drives the plot, a book that guides Juliet in taking steps to help her succeed at personal cost, gives this movie a touch of its own identity even if it also undercuts the lesson at the heart of the narrative.
The story of “Nocturne”, while slightly derivative, carries with it important themes that help make it the most fully realized film in the Welcome to Blumhouse lineup. I always enjoy a horror film that has something universally relevant to say and “Nocturne’s” strong examination of the risks of seeking perfection and the lengths one will go to achieve success are heard loud and clear. The supernatural elements serves as a way to bring this struggle to life while also defining the certain steps in the destruction of innocence within the character Juliet. From negative wishes towards her own flesh and blood to sexual activity, her awakening is directly caused by her hunger for praise and perfection which later ties in to the revelation that what she always lacked wasn’t musical skill, but a certain desire and aggressiveness to her craft to pull it off. Her willingness to compromise who she is is also indirectly tied to her inability to enjoy her youth and undergo self discovery sooner due to being held back by her obsession practicing, something her sister managed to do while also succeeding where Juliet failed. The loss of innocence, the corrupted artist and the dark consequences of ego and envy are all tied together in a nice, well-paced slow burn of a film that never leans too heavily into any one concept or element. Every idea and story thread compliments and builds off the others creating what, for me at least, was a genuinely engaging viewing experience.
“Nocturne” also benefits from solid performances helping drive the plot with Sydney Sweeny playing a convincingly tortured musician who wants nothing more than to ensure her years of tireless dedication are not wasted in the shadow of her sister, played by an equally notable Madison Iseman. Playing fraternal twins Sweeny and Iseman portray a convincing bond while also fleshing out their individual personalities, Iseman’s Vivian being a blindly self-righteous musical prodigy and Sweeney’s Juliet being an overly reserved talent overlooked due to her lack of charisma. Their rivalry is at the center of the film and drives Juliet towards her dark ways, which I enjoyed because their sibling bond makes her envy of Vivian’s success much more relatable and personal. It’s much easier to understand her diving into darkness for success when it’s her SISTER who is overshadowing her and not just some random student from school. While the rest of the cast feels on board as well, it’s these two who sell the story and are at the center of the core conflict and without them this movie doesn’t work. The relationship needed to be convincing, the bond needed to be convincing and both actresses’ to very well to work off each other and avoid a lot of bland clichés horror movie siblings often share.
Even with the praise I choose to hand this film though it’s hard to overlook its lack of originality and that’s not necessarily this movie’s fault. It simply came too late. The idea of musical artistry driving a drama, thriller or horror film has oddly become a more common idea, again most notably with Oscar nominees “Whiplash” and “Black Swan”, the latter of which is all to easily compared to “Nocturne”. As much as I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but compare “Nocturne” to “Black Swan” around almost every turn and while I could say that about a lot of movies due to the lack of creativity in Hollywood these days, most other films that bring about thoughts of similar works hold well enough on their own where the similarities are passing or feel more coincidental. Movies that fail to stand on their own are usually crap. “Nocturne” is kind of the antithesis to that latter statement. It’s a rare movie that holds very well on its own despite living in the shadow superior films…which kind of fits seeing as that is reflective of Juliet’s dilemma in the movie. “Nocturne” on it’s own is far from a bad movie and does, in fact, compare well to “Black Swan” even if it lacks the same polish and perfection in execution. But the fact remains “Nocturne”, simply put, suffers from being too late to its own ideas and is much too easily and obviously held to the standard of a superior movie that’s a decade old. Still, it’s important to hold a film up on its own merits and while “Nocturne” needed a bit more dedication and artistic vision to pull off, it’s still a gorgeously realized horror piece in its own right.
“Nocturne” is by far the best we’ve seen to date from the Welcome to Blumhouse films. This is the kind of horror movie that’s right up my alley mixing real world relevance with a genuine creepiness supported by respectable acting and an effective slow burn pacing to tie it all together. It might pale in comparison to its predecessors but that doesn’t stop me from calling it one of the best horror pictures of this calendar year. There’s a lot to appreciate and even when compared to movies like “Black Swan” “Nocturne” brings enough of its own thing to the table to stand on its own two feet. While it might not be for everybody, that you can judge that for yourself based on the constant comparison’s I’ve made in this review, “Nocturne” is the one movie of the Welcome to Blumhouse anthology you SHOULD watch as it’s probably the prime example of the studio at its artistic best in 2020.