In classical music, the term “nocturne” refers to a type of musical composition evoking the night and darkness. It seems like a clever, promising title for Zu Quirke’s new horror movie, which peers into the competitive world of classical musicianship. The film follows the tradition of psychological thrillers such as “Black Swan,” “Whiplash” and “The Perfection,” which trace discipline’s descent into self-destruction. “Nocturne” reaches for this darkness, but ultimately keeps the night light on.
The movie follows Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and her twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman), classically trained pianists studying at their prestigious arts high school. Vivian coasts through senior year with a committed boyfriend (Jacques Colimon) and a final destination of Juilliard after graduation. Juliet, on the other hand, anticipates a gap year as she continues reeling from her Juilliard rejection — a tangible reminder she will always play second fiddle to her charming, gifted sister.
The girls’ frozen hierarchy begins to thaw when Moira (Ji Eun Hwang), a gifted and reclusive violinist, walks off a windowsill in the opening scene. Moira formerly secured the solo at the school’s massive showcase, but her death forces Juliet and Vivian to vie for the single coveted spot. Juliet becomes swept up in the ripples of Moira’s mysterious suicide when she discovers the violinist’s ominous notebook, inscribed with unsettling poetry and folkloric illustrations.
A sinister cycle begins anew when the supernatural forces of Moira’s notebook seep into Juliet. Yet, the film underscores these supernatural developments with Juliet’s increasingly debilitating addiction to her anxiety medication. These two competing sources of conflict convolute the central plot, and it remains frustratingly unclear what fuels Juliet’s obsessive ambition.
Sweeney previously displayed her talents on the HBO series “Euphoria” as sweet and tragic Cassie Howard. As the dry and reserved Juliet, Sweeney hardens her expressions to porcelain bitterness, and her grave silences communicate more than the script’s pompous dialogue. Iseman also beams with easy charm and subtle condescension masquerading as care, making it obvious why Vivian is the more lovable sister.
“Nocturne” tunes all of its cinematic instruments to play a serious, thrilling horror piece, but it delivers a disappointingly flat performance. Unlike its thematic antecedents, “Nocturne” revolves around high schoolers, so it’s difficult to buy the high stakes of success peddled in this film; Juliet lies just on the cusp of 18 when she’s told her life’s sacrifices amount to nothing and it’s too late to achieve her dreams. It’s even less compelling when the steadied, stable camera takes no experimental risks to capture Juliet’s descent into madness.
Quirke generates suspense through close-ups of dexterous hands and wiry fingers, fragmenting the piano as a pressurized art form coming to a boil. Yet, “Nocturne” largely shies away from gore. There are two bloodied scenes, reminiscent of “Carrie,” but overall, the film’s cutthroat environment seems squeamish about making an incision.
The few visual effects in “Nocturne” are indeed startling, but they’re not scary — they’re just ridiculous. As Juliet begins her internal spiral, she faces Moira’s flickering, grimacing specter. It’s hard to be scared, however, when the deceased’s shattered skull looks woefully, laughably cartoonish. Another scene illustrates the locus of Juliet’s supernatural entity as a beaming yellow orb that looks more like zoomed in footage of a traffic light, not an eternal higher power. The few scenes in which Juliet and Vivian actually play piano are interrupted by what sounds like a synthesized zipper. The campy editing feels more fit for satire, and it chips away at the film’s purported pretension.
In addition to directing, Quirke penned the screenplay, leaving sly Easter eggs for viewers familiar with the history of classical music to pick up. The film repeatedly invokes the Devil’s Trill and speckles a brief reference to tritones, musical conventions tethered to demonic and haunted histories. The sisters’ rivalry even reflects the rumored tension between their respective chosen composers, Mozart and Salieri. However, these clever embellishments cannot refurbish a script standing on a cliched, wobbly stage.
As if afflicted by stage fright, “Nocturne” hesitates to perform its wicked elements at full volume. It’s a thriller that isn’t thrilling, since the razor-sharp world of classical music is dulled by overplayed dialogue, lackluster sex scenes and predictable twists.