★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani
Protect my child from the EVIL EYE, so that she may be married.Opening Proverb Evil Eye
Familiar family themes resonate in the Indian immigration tale of generational trust issues and the classic trope of the lover with a deep dark secret. The movie vacillates between being poignant to predictable, but it is always buoyed when veteran character actress Sarita Choudhury (Mississippi Masala) is on screen. It works much better as a family drama than a horror film, but it does have a thriller payoff at the end.
If you have been paying attention for a long time to The Scariest Things, you may have noticed my desire to see Indian films engage in Horror. In 2018, Tumbbad was released, and it was remarkable. But, it largely remains as an island relative to original horror concepts from the sub-continent. So strange, given the enormity of the Bollywood film industry that more scary films are not released, but until Indian movie tastes change, high-quality horror will be a rare treat.
Enter a movie that is quintessentially Indian American. Evil Eye is a movie that for a while was showing up in my Amazon Prime recommended horror films, and I have been a fan of star Sunita Mani who is part of the wonderful ensemble cast of the wrestling comedy GLOW. In Evil Eye gives the actress a starring role opportunity. She plays Pallavi, a woman in her late 20’s living in New Orleans as a graduate assistant, but dreaming of a career as a writer.
In a classic theme with Indian culture (and Asian Immigrant culture in general) of parental matchmaking meddling. Her mother Usha (Choudhury) has been trying to set her daughter up, but Pallavi is a modern American woman and wants to find love on her own. And that she does, as her blind date gets interrupted when she runs into the handsome and successful Sandeep (Omar Maskati). Thinking that her mother would be thrilled that she finally found a match, she is stunned when Usha is instead skeptical and concerned about Pallavi’s new boyfriend.
Usha has some doubts that linger from a trauma that she had with an old abusive boyfriend who died under mysterious circumstances while she was pregnant with Pallavi. She is now convinced that Sandeep is the reincarnation of her dead ex. This does not sit well with her practical and patient husband Krishnan (Bernard White) or Pallavi. Sandeep, however, is undeterred and seems quite open with Usha and generous with Pallavi. The dream boyfriend, right?
Well, as expected, if it’s too good to be true, it most likely is. And Usha refuses to let it go, straining all the family relationships. But more evidence comes forward and she is absolutely convinced that Sandeep is the devil in disguise.
It’s a classic horror trope. Sandeep drops sinister suggestions to Usha, but nobody else is there to witness it. It’s like the Warner Brother’s Frog cartoon, where you point to it and say SEE! SEE!!!! He’s EVIL! Oh, why can’t you see what I see? For horror fans, think Fright Night, or more recently Summer of ’84. In those films, it’s children who aren’t taken seriously. In this case, it’s the middle-aged woman who gets ignored.
The veteran actors Choudhury and White deliver excellent performances. Mani is occasionally great, but there are some pretty stiff script issues where she is asked to deliver some pretty cliche lines. Unfortunately, Maskati is a bit of a weak link. He doesn’t have enough menace to be the devil in disguise. In order to create sufficient dramatic tension, he needs to flip that switch on and off, and instead, he seems to be delightful and charming but not menacing enough when he needs to be.
I can appreciate that the Dassanis and writer Madhuri Shekar wanted to tell an immigrant tale of the difficulties in the arranged dating scene so prevalent in Indian culture, and as a drama, it works very well. It is a couple of musical numbers short of a Bollywood dramedy. But as a horror film, it doesn’t connect its punches very well. It really needed to build to the violent conclusion it provides, as the exposition for Usha’s fears came late, and not as powerful as is needed to really make the thrills resonate.
It is worth a watch, but the horror is very much a lower case “h.” But if you like tense family dramas, with a good mother-daughter immigrant story, this will satisfy.