“When the evil eye is cast in your direction, ignore it at your peril.” Cue the intro to Evil Eye (2020), the latest movie from a team-up of Amazon Prime Originals and Blumhouse Productions, a company known for delivering horror movies that lie on all parts of the good/bad movie spectrum. Rooted in a diverse cast of South Asian actors and an exciting, original premise, Evil Eye appeared to be a promising new horror film that also incorporated the diversity that has long been lacking in the genre. However, despite the appealing trailer, Evil Eye turned out to be a pretty big disappointment. The plot is choppy, the characters are one-dimensional, and the dialogue/writing is awful. It’s always been said that not even the greatest actor can save bad writing, and in this case, some of the acting itself needed saving as well.
The film follows a very limited cast of characters. Pallavi Kharti (Sunita Mani) is a 29 year old Indian girl living in New Orleans, with a life that isn’t really described or fleshed out in any way throughout the movie. All we really know about her is that she has aspirations to be a writer someday. Pallavi is constantly being bombarded with calls from her mother in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury), who is desperately trying to find her daughter a nice Indian man to marry. This somewhat stereotypical matchmaking behavior is the driving force behind the film, but frankly, it feels overused and not very original. How many American movies that feature Indian characters also use this trope?
While Pallavi is aggravated by Usha’s constant meddling in her romantic life, here steps in Sandeep Patel (Omar Maskati). Sandeep is a handsome, financially successful, and powerful young man, who catches the attention of Pallavi immediately when they randomly meet in a coffee shop (go figure). They fall in love, and their relationship milestones plow ahead, despite Usha’s disapproval of Sandeep. Usha, a superstitious woman who strongly believes in astrology and protective charms, feels that something is off about Sandeep. He reminds her of an abusive boyfriend that she dated before she married Pallavi’s father, a dangerous, cruel man who hurt her on multiple occasions. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but she believes that Sandeep represents the same evil figure from her past.
Usha’s superstitious beliefs and discomfort with Sandeep become the central conflict of the whole film. Pallavi claims that Sandeep is the perfect man, and she can’t understand why her mother won’t approve of him as appropriate marriage material. After all, he buys her an expensive new apartment, gets her to quit her TA job, and is super supportive of her dreams to become a writer. Meanwhile, Usha carries out some private investigations, both literal and spiritual, and comes to the wild conclusion that Sandeep is in fact a reincarnation of her evil, abusive ex-boyfriend (seriously, there’s a bunch of astrology birth chart stuff that tries to make it all sound believable). While mother and daughter duke it out over Sandeep, Usha appears to be losing her mind and becoming paranoid, worrying her husband and family that she is having a mental breakdown.
It all culminates into one big, final showdown, where Usha unexpectedly catches a flight to New Orleans, leaving behind her husband and home in Delhi. Usha shows up at Pallavi’s apartment, only to be greeted by Sandeep, alone. He confirms that he is the reincarnation of Usha’s ex-boyfriend, and threatens to kill Pallavi if Usha does not become his. It all feels a bit weird, considering how Usha is now a middle aged woman and reincarnated Sandeep is still her daughter’s age. They meet up with Pallavi for an awkward, tense dinner, Usha exposes Sandeep for who he really is, and there’s a big ol’ fight in the kitchen. Mother and daughter end up in the hospital but are fine; Sandeep dies from his injuries, and the film concludes with a shot of a newborn baby opening its eyes. Ominous, right?
While Evil Eye strived to be something more, it ended up being a flop due to its all-too predictable plot and superficial character development (there isn’t even much “development” to begin with). A mom and her daughter fight over a new boyfriend, the mom turns out to be right about him being evil, the end. While watching the film, it didn’t feel like anything was being added along the way. One after another, the too-convenient plot points tried to drive the film’s characters and conflict further, but it resulted in lazy writing and direction. Arguably, Usha does have a little more dimension to her character as her present self mixes with her past traumas, but it’s not enough to save the dullness of the rest of the film.
As for the writing, the dialogue may have been the ultimate downfall of what would have been an otherwise somewhat entertaining film. Asking Madhuri Shekar, the author of the original Evil Eye Audible audio play, to also write the film was probably a mistake. Pallavi is given dull, cliche lines that make her feel like a stereotypical rom-com character. Her phone calls with Usha, which make up a pretty big chunk of the film’s dialogue, are at times painfully boring and amateurish. Sunita Mani, who has otherwise proven her acting talent in successful TV shows such as Mr. Robot and GLOW, tries her best to make the character of Pallavi seem interesting, but even her acting falls through in several scenes. It almost feels like a group of college students got together and tried to make a movie, while also putting in minimal effort.
Perhaps the most disappointing part about the film is how much I really, really wanted it to succeed. The horror genre has been filled with stories about white people, and also featured mostly white people, for decades. We all know the classic horror movie trope about how the one Black friend in the cast gets killed first; people of color, when they are actually included in horror films, often play dispensable roles that don’t add much to the overall story of the film. Only in recent years have we seen horror movies about BIPOC, such as Jordan Peele’s extremely successful films Get Out and Us, really thrive in the mainstream horror field. Seeing the trailer for Evil Eye was encouraging at first, because we’ve never really seen South Asian people represented in general American cinema, much less the horror genre. The trailer promised an intricate horror film that explored Indian culture and superstition, paired with an exciting plot about a daughter in danger and an evil, destructive man. Unfortunately, the film fell short of these promises, leaving me wondering if some American critics will claim that the film was poor quality simply because it tried to be diverse.
While Evil Eye ended up not being a film worth recommending, the fact that a horror movie starring South Asian actors even exists is an encouraging step in the right direction. Hopefully, Evil Eye will pave the way for other South Asian directors, writers, and actors to step up and make more films about their identities and cultures, in any genre of film. The opportunities for BIPOC to make advancements in film would be endless; Hollywood just has to open the doors for them.