A strict music teacher shames an unremarkable student by impugning her lack of fire. When she asks why he thinks her twin sister is a better pianist, the teacher replies, “Because she plays like the devil is at the door.” When she asks his thoughts about the talents of his protege who recently killed herself, the educator replies, “She played like the devil was in the room.”
Those lines are the key to writer/director Zu Quirke’s new horror film NOCTURNE, premiering on Amazon Prime today. The story concerns those two twin teens in competition with each other at a high school for the performing arts. Vivian (Madison Iseman) is the one who plays with passion. Juliet (Sydney Sweeney), the younger twin by mere seconds, has always come in second to her sis. Vivian is far more advanced in life as well as in school as she’s got a boyfriend, likes to party, and exudes unshakable confidence. Juliet is a mope on a rope, sulking and skulking about, barely mustering enough energy to turn the pages for Vivian when she plays her concerto solo.
The suicide of their classmate Moira Wilson (Ji Eun Hwang), however, makes them question their future in classical music. Vivian fears that a music career could be a miserable one, even though she’s been accepted at Julliard. Juliet worries that if the best students are that unhappy, why is she even bothering to toil in a craft where she’s nothing but an also-ran. Should art be this much hell?
Then one day, Juliet discovers Moira’s notebook and it’s filled with fever dream drawings and scrawling that suggest the dead girl might have been dabbling in the occult. Did some supernatural power drive her talent, as well as her demise? Merely touching the greatness of Moira strewn throughout those pages starts to have an effect on Juliet. Suddenly, she’s bursting with ambition and is playing above her normal adequacy. Soon, she’s impressing everyone, even that dismissive teacher (Ivan Snow), as well as threatening the prowess of her overachieving sis.
NOCTURNE both winks at and borrows from Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN (2011) and Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977), two similarly-themed horror films about cut-throat competition in the arts. In many ways, however, the film that Quirke seems to be referencing most is Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976). Both Juliet and Carrie are sad-sack innocents, mousy virgins afraid to speak or stand up for themselves. Each learns to use devilish ideals to turn things in their favor too. And it’s exceedingly rare for horror to assign emotions like longing to their protagonists, but CARRIE did so, as did Jaume Collet-Serra in ORPHAN (2009), and now NOCTURNE. Quirke’s film compels us to watch this young girl’s attempts to matter with a sympathetic eye. She is to be pitied more than feared.
Juliet doesn’t turn into a monster as she grows out of her sister’s shadow in the story, instead, she turns into a human being. She tastes the limelight and wants to experience more, everything from kissing a boy to attending school parties to shutting down the quips of her pithy parents. Quite simply, Juliet wants to live, and if it takes some witchy pages to do so, then she’s all in. Of course, such bargains come with strings attached, but Quirke smartly doesn’t make the strains of satanism play too obvious here. Perhaps it is Beelzebub who’s guiding Juliet, but it very well could be just her imagination.
Quirke makes some missteps, mostly in script choices that border on the cliched. You almost want to groan when one of the music teachers is revealed to be having an affair with a student. And it’s a bit too pat how accidents do Juliet’s dirty work in taking out the competition. Quirke succeeds more when she avoids such overused tropes. She smartly gives Vivian a caring and kind boyfriend (Jacques Colimon), rather than a doofus as is often the case in the genre. Additionally, Juliet’s turning on her uninspiring tutor Roger (John Rothman) doesn’t lead to his bloody demise, merely his suspension from school. Quirke also knows how to foreshadow without screaming such plot points to the rafters.
She also manages to maintain tight control over her direction. Her assured hand is obvious, but not too obvious, throughout the economical 90-minute, ahem, chamber piece. She doesn’t go out of her way to show off her technique and while cinematographer Carmen Cabana’s camera work is slick and exact, it never seems showy. The same discipline is evident in the editing. Sure, there are some calculated slow-motion tracking shots and smash cuts employed to heighten various moments, but Quirke has her editor Andrew Drazek spend most of his talents lingering on the faces of the characters. They both know a beat or two longer on a good cast will catch subtleties and nuance that only add more depth to such pulpy material.
And for a movie that’s all about classical music, Quirke wisely doesn’t fill the soundtrack with Mozart, Chopin, or Bach. Guiseppe Tartini’s sonata “The Devil’s Trill” is heard often, as that is the titular piece that both sisters play in competition, but most of the underscore is moody, synth sound design. That ensures the classical pieces become a character in the story rather than just a part of the soundtrack.
“The Devil’s Trill” was written by Tartini supposedly after he had a vision of the devil at the foot of his bed. Perhaps such inspiration drove Quirke too, just as it seemingly eggs on Juliet. Quirke knows that the performing arts, even in high school, are not for the tame or feeble. Putting yourself on the line is never easy, especially when you’re striving for art with a capital A. Quirke’s film isn’t quite a modern classic, but it’s shrewd, involving, and well-acted, particularly by the estimable Sweeney who’s on quite a roll with this after her vivid turns in SHARP OBJECTS and EUPHORIA. Blumhouse Productions should also be applauded for shepherding this smarter-than-most horror entry, as well as their tireless commitment to the genre. Indeed, when it comes to frighteners showing on the big screen and small, Blumhouse’s passion has led them to the head of the class.