If “Whiplash,” “Black Swan,” “The Piano Teacher,” and “Glee” have taught us anything, it’s that a life in music studies is hell. The cutthroat, competitive jockeying. The sleepless, foodless nights. The sexual frustration. All of the above take their weighty toll on the soul. This by-now culturally mythic concept is taken to supernatural dimensions in the latest Blumhouse entry for Amazon, “Nocturne.” While star Sydney Sweeney delivers on the promise of her turn on HBO’s “Euphoria” as a compelling presence capable of displaying vulnerability without ever seeming naive, a derivative screenplay that can’t stick the landing doesn’t so much fail her gifts as allow them to outshine it. Written and directed by Zu Quirke, “Nocturne” tears freely from the pages of the female psychosexual thriller genre, but can’t reassemble them into a fulfilling whole.
Teenaged Juliet (Sweeney) is always playing second fiddle to her more outgoing, sexuality-oozing, and less virginal twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman), older than Juliet by just a few seconds. They’re both students at an elite music academy, where they study piano, but where Vivian is the darling prodigy, Juliet is the underachiever never taken seriously by her teachers. With graduation looming, Vivian has already been accepted into Juilliard, while Juliet has opted to take a gap year, though not exactly by choice. That’s because her piano skills not only lag behind her sister’s, but she’s stunted in other ways: She’s 17, soon to be 18, and has never been kissed, unlike Vivian, who has a steady boyfriend. “I’ve never smoked a cigarette, and I’ve never owned a PlayStation!” Juliet spews at her mentor Roger (John Rothman), just one instance of on-the-nose dialogue that serves to tell us, rather than show, who these people are.
But haunting the halls of the academy is the recent suicide of virtuoso student Moria (Ji Eun Hwang), who, in the film’s opening scene, flung herself off the school’s roof in eerie, ritualistic fashion. Preceding Moria’s unexplained death was a series of violent occurrences that wrought terror over her entire family. But the gossiping student body is too busy preparing for an upcoming academy showcase to be too concerned. Things take a spooky turn when Juliet stumbles upon a notebook with Moria’s name on it containing pages of ghastly images and cryptic inscriptions. They begin to take hold of Juliet.
When the book materializes the sheet music from the exact Saint-Saëns piece Vivian plans to audition with for the showcase, Juliet is suddenly bewitched to perform the piece as well, upstaging her sister in the process. This immediately sets the stage for a kind of backstage bitch fest a la “Showgirls” and “Black Swan,” but closer to the latter in terms of the film’s tired psychological horror tropes. (Flashes of gotcha! body horror in a dressing room chief among them.)
A most obvious tipoff to “Black Swan” is a domineering male teacher, Mike (A.J. Tannen), brooding and handsome, who seems to cast a spell over the women of the academy. In the deeply inappropriate teacher-student relationships that unfold throughout the film, Tannen’s character reminds us of Vincent Cassel in “Black Swan,” a patriarchy-representing force who’s basic advice to Natalie Portman’s sexually repressed ballerina Nina was, “Lose your virginity or your career is over.” Juliet is similarly virginal and, at times, even puerile, her voice always at the meek decibel of a small child’s. A drug experience pushes Juliet closer to her first sexual experience — and, after a violent incident, pushes her sister quite literally out of the way, setting Juliet up to become the star performer of the upcoming showcase.
As the notebook begins to possess Juliet and force her to do more and more evil bidding, Sweeney’s performance deftly spans multiple levels, both as saboteur and also limp-hearted ingenue. Iseman proves a formidable match as the sisters try to one-up each other in increasingly warped ways and spew a few cutting verbal barbs. “We’re both failures. But I have an excuse,” Vivian tells her sister after an injury throws her out of the showcase. “You’re just mediocre.”
Still, the way this story unfolds, and how it unpeels its protagonist into a sexually deflowered, master musician is too predictable to be scary, despite a few striking tableaux involving a psychedelic, almost extraterrestrial orb of light that wraps itself around Juliet in moments of terror. But the script is half-baked and rushed, too much of a collage of other, better movies, and too coy to embrace its trashiness or ever go beyond PG-13 levels of horror. “Nocturne” ends on a tongue-in-cheek final image that’s charming in its grisly psychoticness, but the grand finale isn’t as over-the-top and emotionally enveloping as it should be, as Juliet finally embraces her dark side, but we’re left with no reason to cheer her on.
“Nocturne” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Tuesday, October 13.