Welcome to part three of my “Welcome to Blumhouse” reviews! In case you’re unaware, “Welcome to Blumhouse” is a collection of four unrelated films available to watch on Prime Video with an Amazon Prime subscription. I’ve already covered Black Box and The Lie in previous posts, and today I’ll take a look at Zu Quirke’s 2020 film titled Nocturne. Also, this is a spoiler-free review! So even if you haven’t seen Nocturne yet, feel free to read on.
Nocturne focuses on a teenage girl, Juliet “JuJu” Lowe, an ambitious, talented young pianist attending a ritzy arts boarding-school. However, she is consistently overshadowed by her equally ambitious but admittedly more talented twin sister, Vivian, a.k.a. “Vi.” When Juliet comes into possession of the occult-like notebook of a recently deceased classmate, she discovers her true potential, but it comes at a cost.
In many ways, this sounds like the setup for a sports movie (the gifted but not that gifted protagonist, who must learn to dig deep and give it 110%, etc., etc.). In even more ways, it sounds like the setup for Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash, and Nocturne clearly borrows healthily from that film’s archetypes. There’s the abusive teacher, the former gifted student’s suicide (not really a Nocturne spoiler, since it happens in the first 30 seconds of the film), the father who encourages the protagonist to come to terms with innate limitations and find happiness in some other, “normal,” pursuit. The list of thematic similarities to Whiplash does not end there, believe me. But really, the point I’m trying to make is that while Nocturne mostly fails in terms of originality, it at least succeeds in distinguishing itself visually and thematically.
I’m not sure if this is partly due to the film being a production of Blumhouse Television, but Nocturne, for some godforsaken reason, starts off looking (and sounding) like a bad made-for-TV movie. For some reason, the lighting and dialogue of those first couple of scenes have this oppressive sitcom-y feel, which seems really out of touch with the rest of the movie’s look and atmosphere. Intentional? Maybe, but I certainly hope not. However, the film does eventually find its footing, and when it began to break into striking sequences of neon phantasmagoria, I found myself instantly pulled back into the fold. The color palette used for these sequences was reminiscent of 2018’s Annihilation, which I feel is under-explored in horror and offered a super enjoyable visual treat (despite clearly working with a much, much smaller budget for those sequences). Unfortunately, these impressive visual excursions were broken up by scenes of characters throwing melodramatic, High School Drama absurdities back and forth with such speed and confidence that I officially theorized Nocturne’s main cast must all be transfers from Degrassi High.
This sort of start-and-stop experience made the film a bit of a rough ride, but zooming out to look at the picture as a whole, I have to admit that Nocturne is pretty engaging thematically. The film always remains wonderfully ambivalent to the reality of Juliet’s experiences while leaving more than enough breadcrumbs to lead you down any justifying path. There’s a scene where one of her friends calls her out on interpreting her experiences as “supernatural,” and points out that she’s probably just projecting due to unhappiness and stress. At the same time, some scenes lend undeniable credibility to the paranormality of Juliet’s visions. It is a bit easy to pick apart this ambivalence by dissecting the individual scenes and Juliet et al.’s reactions. However, one simply has to accept that the most charitable assumption for Nocturne is that it wasn’t made for that level of scrutiny and that Quirke’s real aspirations were about creating a particular dream-like atmosphere. In the film’s quietest moments, it is a success, and it’s only when characters themselves feel the need to try and work out the movie’s themes for themselves that it becomes a dramatic mess.
So now onto the real reason you’re here: is Nocturne worth a watch? Well, I can confidently say that it is my favorite of the three “Welcome to Blumhouse” films I’ve watched so far, for whatever that’s worth. Although none of these films have been wildly original in terms of story, Nocturne provides enough visual intrigue to keep you engaged all of the ways through. Although most of the dialogue-heavy scenes were cringe-worthy, the films’ actual horror aspects were surprisingly inspired, in contrast. None of this is even to mention some of the recurring visual motifs, and clever visual foreshadowing spread throughout the film, which I can’t really discuss without wandering heavily into spoiler territory. These aspects of Nocturne led me to really appreciate the evident passion Quirke put into the film (here’s one thing to pay attention to in your viewing: what’s the significance of Vi’s name being the Roman numeral for the number 6?). Clearly, Quirke has the right eye for the genre, and I’m honestly excited to see how she improves upon what she’s learned from this project in the future.
So yeah, I’d recommend Nocturne! It’s far from a groundbreaking work of horror, but where it does manage to shine, it shines bright (and usually in orange and blue).