Any story can be a horror story with just the right twist. Such is the apparent thrust of filmmaking brothers Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani’s “Evil Eye,” which attempts to turn the cleverly conceived Audible Original penned by award-winning playwright Madhuri Shekar into a more run-of-the-mill chiller. Shekar, who also wrote the screenplay for this latest entry into Blumhouse and Amazon’s burgeoning streaming film series, first presented the story of mother-daughter Usha and Pallavi through a series of phone calls and voicemails, all the better to build on their bond and then explode it outward into something very different. That idea doesn’t quite work in the cinematic adaptation, which tries to inject the story’s supernatural element too early — all the better to set up the film as a thriller worthy of the Blumhouse label — and robs it of the source material’s cleverness in the process.
It’s a strange pickle, to be sure. The film’s greatest strength — that it tackles a culturally specific storyline with care and respect, never falling into cheap tropes — is also what keeps it from being genuinely scary. Usha (Sarita Choudhury) is a traditional Indian mother who believes in everything from reincarnation and birth charts to matchmaking and lifelong curses, the kind of stuff another story (and other creators) might treat as a simple way to deliver out-there scares. But Usha’s concerns are presented as rooted in very real occurrences from the start, removing any sense of doubt that could otherwise add true tension to the narrative.
Usha has spent most of her adult life worried about her only daughter, Pallavi (“GLOW” star Sunita Mani gamely taking on a non-comedic role), and her concerns only grow as Pallavi approaches age 30 with little in the way of romantic possibility. Pallavi may still live in the U.S. — Usha and her husband moved back to India once their only child was grown — but mother and daughter stay linked through copious phone calls, so it’s easy for Usha to fixate on her worries about Pallavi, always a click of a button away.
And, here’s the rub: Usha’s worries about Pallavi are grounded in much more than the fact that she’s yet to find a mate (a specific worry that also feels relatable and universal via Choudhury and Mani’s loving chemistry and Shekar‘s emotionally sharp writing), because Pallavi’s bad luck stems from a terrible experience Usha had as a young woman. Since she was a baby, Usha has been consumed by the belief that Pallavi is cursed, the effects of which Usha tries to stave off with an eponymous evil eye bracelet and Usha’s helicopter parenting. That… doesn’t sound very scary, does it? More traumatic than anything else, and worthy of one hell of a trigger warning for abuse, “Evil Eye” eventually spins out this idea into half-baked horror tropes.
When Pallavi unexpectedly finds love with handsome stranger Sandeep (Omar Maskati, the only person who operates as if he’s in a Blumhouse thriller, and with alluring ease), she expects that her mother will be thrilled, but Usha isn’t excited from the start. The Dassanis layer in nightmarish flashback sequences to explain away Usha’s fraught history, and while the film often looks like a made-for-TV endeavor, these more demanding shots are well-made. Usha is convinced that Sandeep is actually the reincarnation of a man who stalked and abused her in the months before she met and married Pallavi’s dad.
It’s not that those flashbacks — or the retroactive worries that have clung to Usha for decades — aren’t effective. They just don’t quite mesh in a film that stretches to fit into thriller confines, when its dramatic and emotional elements are so much better tuned. In a recent interview, Mani mentioned that the Dassanis told her to seek inspiration from animated Disney Princess Elsa for her role, requiring her to essentially live inside a fuzzy rom-com while everything else around her spins out of control. While that was a fine note to the actress, it also highlights just how much it seems like everyone here is acting in a different film.
Mani may be in a sunny rom-com and Choudhury makes a meal out of an unexpectedly grounded turn, but it’s only Maskati who seems to remember this is all meant to be scary. As Sandeep, he’s tasked with constantly tipping between charming mystery man and nefarious baddie, depending on who he’s with and how he wants to make them feel. He’s the scariest thing going here, and while that’s to be expected (hello, he’s the bad guy!), that’s all in relatively short supply in a film that doesn’t dare get really chilling and thrilling until its final minutes. Even then, it’s too late, and while “Evil Eye” packs plenty of compelling cultural specificity inside its frames, it never attempts to dig any deeper into the wider world of that stuff that would scare anyone.
“Evil Eye” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Tuesday, October 13.