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THE MERMAID: LAKE OF THE DEAD ***

Directed by Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy. Starring Viktoriya Agalakova, Efim Petrunin, Sofia Shidlovskaya, Nikita Elenev, Sesil Plezhe, Igor Khripunov. Russia 2018 90 mins Certificate: 15

Released on DVD and Digital on 22nd July 2019 from 4 Digital Media

 

While many of us grew up yearning to meet a mermaid who looked like Daryl Hannah (or perhaps Marina from STINGRAY, depending on your own personal preferences), the horror genre has often been there to spoil the fun and warn us of the dangers of being drawn in by anything beautiful and mysterious dwelling in the vast depths of the ocean. Milan Todorovic’s KILLER MERMAID (screened at Frightfest as NYMPH) embraced the JAWS-style monster p.o.v. clichés in a horror scenario doubling as a feature length Serbian Tourist Board promo: Come to Serbia for our beautiful women! Beautiful beaches! Loveably Crazy Old Fishermen Like Franco Nero! Meet Our Beautiful Mermaid Living Underneath An Old Military Fortress! The stand-outs have been Macarena Gomez’s fishy temptress in Stuart Gordon’s underrated DAGON and the wonderfully off-kilter vampiric mermaid sisters of the much-admired Polish arthouse-musical-horror THE LURE.

 

Director Syvatoslav Podgaevskiy has been busy carving out a niche for himself over the last few years with atmospheric, highly commercial latter-day fairy-tale horror movies like QUEEN OF SPADES: THE DARK RITE and THE BRIDE – the latter of which starred this film’s beautiful, talented leading lady Viktoriya Agalakova. MERMAID lacks a conventional fishy-tailed malevolent female presence but it does centre around the local legend of drowned, unwed girls evolving into evil mermaids.

 

The opening fatality features an ill-fated character talking about these ancient Russian beliefs in dangerous, love-seeking, other-worldly women of the water. Cut to young bride-to-be Marina (Agalakova), who can’t swim and is seen early on almost drowning, thanks to her fiancée Roman (Efim Petrunin) being too busy proving a point with his professional swimmer buddy. Roman’s friends (including the son of the widowed guy from the prologue) have hired strippers for his last night of freedom, and his ill-advised, genre-standard decision to opt for a late-night swim at the lake next to their summer house results in an encounter with a spooky, bedraggled young woman (Sofia Shidlovskaya) whispering ominously “Do you love me…” as she slowly combs her shedding hair. Roman spends the rest of the movie getting sick as he’s hounded by her lovesick, increasingly threatening presence – and our heroine is inevitably drawn into the ensuing horrors.

 

It’s a shame everyone has been poorly dubbed with gratingly generic American accents for this UK version (with no Russian language / subtitled option), as it does take the edge off an effectively creepy latter-day variant on the tropes and obsessions of the best J-horror from the early 21st century. Podgaevskiy fixates on an assortment of water receptacles: shower heads, troublesome / slo-mo dripping taps, inexplicably leaking mugs, vibrating glasses of water, portentous rain showers…and of course the inevitable Bathtub Jump Scare. All balanced with a dash of the old faulty electrics.

 

The movie does fall back on well-worn clichés like the “Oh, it’s you!” hand-on-shoulder fake-frights, hackneyed shock cuts and only-a-dream scares, though it also delivers a couple of bonafide chills. Everything admittedly runs according to formula, from the car that won’t start to the unveiling of the persistent spectre’s tragic backstory, though it’s executed slickly in a fashion that’s at least as efficient as Hollywood’s ever-growing (and ever-groaning) CONJURING universe. Podgaevskiy makes the same judgement error of THE NUN and CURSE OF LA LLORONA (to name but two) in showing his antagonist far too much: MERMIAD is so much more effective when merely hinting at her intimidating off-camera presence.

 

The movie’s qualities in front of and behind the camera give it some gravitas: it’s very well shot by Anton Zenkovich (a first rate Blu-ray would have showed off his work better), and also – unlike many of its American counterparts – benefits from genuinely likeable protagonists. Agalakova, blonde, blue eyed and empathetic, is a heroine worth rooting for and, beneath all the more cliched elements, she brings conviction to an authentic portrait of a youthful relationship beset by everyday insecurities and the true-to-form immaturity of the male half of that union.

 

Steven West

 

 

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FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018