Evil Eye and Nocturne review: Blumhouse’s double feature illustrates horrors of Indian matchmaking and sibling rivalry
If you are curating a Halloween movie marathon, I would advise skipping the four features of Welcome to the Blumhouse altogether.
After last week's fright-free fiascos, Amazon-Blumhouse double it up with two more frustrating-than-frightening flicks ahead of Halloween.
In the Priyanka Chopra Jonas-produced Evil Eye, the Nashville-born filmmakers Elan and Rajeev Dassani mine the horrors of Indian matchmaking (also a Netflix docu-series). Pallavi Kharti (Sunita Mani) is fast approaching her 30s, and must deal with the all-too-desi, all-too-familiar anxieties of a mother worried her daughter's marital prospects are becoming grimmer each day.
Pallavi lives in New Orleans, her mother Usha (Sarita Choudhury) in New Delhi. The horror of helicopter parenting plays out over daily phone calls, as Usha fixates over Pallavi's videshi-ness, her lack of enthusiasm for arranged marriage set-ups, and her dismissal of superstitions. Pallavi finally does meet a man she likes and eventually falls for: a tech bro named Sandeep (Omar Maskati). However, Usha's initial delight makes way for dread as she becomes convinced that Sandeep is the reincarnation of a man who abused her before her own marriage.
For over an hour of its runtime, Evil Eye relegates the horror to the periphery. The Dassani brothers exploit the familiar horror dynamic of women not being believed and written off as crazy. This includes her husband Krishnan (Bernard White). Struggling to balance his role as dutiful husband and loving father, he dismisses Usha' concerns over Sandeep's reincarnation, and insists on her seeing a shrink.
Choudhury’s performance is a quiet storm of bottled trauma and a celebration of a survivor’s strength. Hindered by an ungainly narrative and cut-and-dry direction, Mani — whom we have come to know and love as Arthie Premkumar in Netflix's GLOW — does not quite get as memorable a dramatic turn.
Based on an Audible Original by Madhuri Shekar, Evil Eye takes the concept of "drishti" or "buri nazar," the malevolent gaze believed to bestow ill will on the receiver, and turns it into a generational curse of abuse in patriarchal structures. Usha's own buried trauma as a young woman resurfaces in her anxiety over the inescapable cycle of violence being repeated. Migraine-induced flashes act as a window into Usha's past trauma. All Usha really wants is for her daughter to not repeat her mistake, karma be damned. So, she insists on Pallavi wearing a protective bracelet. She is seen constantly praying for her daughter, seeking astrologists for advice, and double-checking horoscopes. Only, as the poster gives it away ("Trust your mother's instincts"), her worst suspicions are confirmed when Sandeep turns out to be exactly who she imagined.
Sandeep could be any rich, entitled South Delhi guy, who stalks and harasses women because he can't take no for an answer — or any "nice guy" who abuses women by using his reputation to shield himself from accountability. However, the Dassani brothers fail to capture the cultural fears of a nation. Instead, they wilfully play to West's notion of India and Indians: the film’s opening shot is of monkeys walking on overhead power cables in New Delhi; a Bollywood music video plays on TV in the Kharti household; and an aunty chastises her husband for eating sweets at a relative's wedding. In a more inventive instance of playing-to-type however, powdered chili becomes a key weapon to temporarily impair the bad guy in the climax. Otherwise, it is all painfully by-the-book and the tedium can only be saved by the mercy of the end credits.
The evil eye plays a more oblique role in Nocturne, a moody psychodrama of sibling rivalry and resentment. Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman) are twin sisters studying to be classical pianists at a highly competitive arts academy. Think of Viv as a talented-and-I-know-it Jo to Julie's always second-best Amy. She is more prodigiously talented, has a boyfriend, is being mentored by Henry Cask (Ivan Shaw), an instructor with exacting standards — and she will be going to Julliard next year. Julie, on the other hand, is a shy workhorse who is reminded every day of her lack of natural talent by the portrait of a young Mozart hanging in the corridor outside her room. Things take a dark turn when she comes across a mysterious notebook with the power to grant her everything Viv has and more.
The occult horrors of Zu Quirke's directorial debut are introduced in the very first scene. We meet the previous owner of the notebook, who is playing Tartini's 'Devil's Trill Sonata' on her violin. A clock chimes, and she puts down her instrument. As if in a daze, she walks to look at the strange symbols scribbled on her wall, before jumping off the balcony to her death.
If you have seen Black Swan or The Perfection, this may sound like a familiar tune, albeit a catchy one. The tragic relationship between two ambitious young women trying to succeed in a cutthroat, predatory, and exploitative artistic world makes for a pithy up-to-the-minute allegory. There are also echoes of The Phantom of the Opera, in which the young Christine Daaé becomes the prima donna at the Paris Opera after making a Faustian deal. Like Whiplash, its horror deals with the cruelty and ruthlessness in even the most beautiful art forms, especially in a winner-take-all culture that makes being second best feel like it is worse than finishing last. Cask, on one occasion, refers to music as "a bloodsport.”
A virtuoso showpiece like Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 2 here becomes a benchmark for excellence, as Julie tries to usurp her sister in the academy's concerto competition. But we never get a glimpse into the origins of Viv and Julie's rivalry, or a clear understanding of how Juliet's bitterness went from what might have been a healthy rivalry to an overwhelming anger that takes over her entire being. Apart from the horror, there is also teen drama at play, as Juliet tries to steal not only Vivian's spot in the competition, but also her boyfriend. Euphoria breakout star Sweeney competently channels the jealousy and resentment that simmers within Julie, her mind unravelling as her demons become unleashed.
Though most of the major chords fail to work, there are minor ones which do. Quirk's stylised aesthetic lend the proceedings a creepy ambience: yellow orbs of light envelop Julie as she witnesses vivid hallucinations and begins to lose her grip on reality. The classical music, along with Gazelle Twin's more contemporary electronic stylings, bring their own level of dread. But all this never crescendos into something truly chilling. It builds to a final tableau that seems like a straight rip-off of Black Swan.
Combing through Blumhouse's catalogue, you will find their hit-and-miss record is filled with more misses than hits. So, if you are curating a Halloween movie marathon, I would advise skipping the four features of Welcome to the Blumhouse altogether.
Evil Eye and Nocturne are streaming as a double feature on Amazon Prime Video.
Evil Eye: *1/2
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