Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
Periods aren’t scary. Annoying, sure. Messy, sometimes. But rarely “scary.”
And yet, the horror genre has used menstruation as a vehicle for conveying terror and conjuring evil for decades. Whether it’s Carrie dodging tampons in the locker room or Beverly Marsh battling that blood geyser in It: Chapter 2, practically any time “” appears in a horror movie she’s presented more like a monster than a routine bodily function. Yeah, it can be problematic as hell.
“I was a very competitive teenager, very territorial. That stayed with me.”
But in Zu Quirke’s feature-length debut Nocturne, the tenacious writer-director isn’t afraid to subvert the sexist trope with her ferociously feminist yet restrained style.
Yes, Nocturne, one of four horror films released this October as part of Amazon Prime Video’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” collection, does have a memorable period scene. But it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Sydney Sweeney stars as Juliet Lowe, a dedicated 17-year-old pianist working to prove she has what it takes to perform professionally. Juliet’s virtuoso twin sister Vivian, played by Madison Iseman, certainly does — what with her early acceptance to Juilliard, adoring teachers, perfect boyfriend (played by Jacques Colimon), and seemingly boundless capacity for piano.
“The film is based in part on my own experiences growing up in classical music,” Quirke explains in a phone interview with Mashable. “I started violin when I was very young, around age 4, and I played basically non-stop until I was 18 — whereupon I realized that I had neither the talent nor the will to make it in the pretty cutthroat business of music. But I was a very competitive teenager, very territorial. That world of competing with my peers stayed with me.”
“You’ve got the world of Juliet’s reality and the world of her interiority.”
Despite mounting tension and jealousy, the twins start the film close. But after Juliet “steals” Vivian’s piece for the senior concerto competition, Vivian stuffs a fistful of bloody tampons into Juliet’s school mailbox in an act of vengeful sibling rivalry.
In another horror movie, this scene might instigate Juliet’s undoing. She’d crumple to the laminate floor, humiliated to be confronted publicly with something as offensive as tampons (and in public no less!) before being assaulted by body horrors even more terrifying than a sloughed-off uterine lining.
But occurring at just minute 36 of Nocturne, a film that can broadly be summarized as Black Swan meets The Perfection meets Whiplash, it’s the beginning of our antiheroine’s complex and thorny rise to excellence.
“Stylistically, I kind of see this movie as moving between two worlds: You’ve got the world of Juliet’s reality and the world of her interiority,” Quirke explains, emphasizing the use of color, cinematography, and score to differentiate the two. “As the movie progresses, these two worlds begin to collide more, and [this scene] is an early instance of that.”
“She’s filled with rage and her focus is really on just getting to her sister.”
With the shrieking of Gazelle Twin’s “Unflesh” — which Quirke says “just sounds like the devil’s music” — heralding Vivian’s demise, Juliet storms across campus brandishing the blood-soaked mound like a declaration of war. It’s an image that combines the power of popular girls dominating the hallway (think Mean Girls, Heathers, Jawbreaker, etc.) with the fearless, feminist stance that period blood, yours or someone else’s shoved inside your inbox, is nothing to be ashamed of.
“We have this scene within the school with Juliet moving among her peers, but she’s also removed mentally from them. She’s filled with rage and her focus is really on just getting to her sister. She’s in a semi-dream. The over-cranking, the dream-like Steadicam, the lack of sound design, the school really taking over the frame — it’s all kind of meant to reflect that.”
Even as onlookers stagger at the sight of Juliet and her oozing trophy (which Quirke says was more like a “dried claw” by the end of the shoot and actually stained Sweeney’s skin for some time afterward), Juliet is undeterred. It’s a shockingly empowered portrayal of menstruation sure to leave audience members who actually menstruate elated. Of course, that’s what Quirke was after.
“I don’t think the usage is particularly horrific, though periods are a common horror trope,” she says. “Usually, periods are represented in horror films as a way of unnerving an audience that has historically been perceived as male… Whereas in this movie, periods become part of the complex arsenal of [psychological] weapons Juliet and Vivian use against one another.”
It might sound like a lot of meaning to impart on a fistful of bloody tampons. But it’s nothing compared to the character-building tapestry Quirke weaves at the scene’s end.
“It’s still easy for Vi to manipulate her. And she does manipulate her on that roof.”
As Juliet emerges onto a rooftop where Vivian is sitting with friends, the tampon tirade comes to an end. There’s confrontation between the twins, with Juliet calling Vivian a “bitch” and throwing the tampons in her direction. But it’s nothing as fiery as viewers were set up to expect.
The girls just make up — an anti-climactic move that sets the stage for a deeply complex female friendship that plays out in the film’s second half.
“It really takes a bit more to bring them to blaze, which does happen later in the movie. But at this point, Juliet is very frustrated but also guilty and knows that she’s done wrong [by stealing Vivian’s piece for the concert], so it’s still easy for Vi to manipulate her. And she does manipulate her on that roof, by convincing her to make peace… [Blood] represents something different to these two girls. When they shake hands on that roof, it’s also a reminder to the audience that they are twin sisters.”
Whether you like the rest of Nocturne or not (most critics didn’t, but this writer certainly did!), the scene I’m affectionately dubbing Nocturne’s Great Tampon Rampage is an objectively exquisite one. It packs positive menstruation representation, complex female character development, and a truly great song (seriously, “Unflesh” slaps) into two minutes of bloody brilliant entertainment.
As Quirke stresses: “Periods aren’t scary.” But they can be pretty fun.
Nocturne is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.