Film Review: The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead

Directed by: Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy, Christopher Bevins; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: D

While this may not be as prevalent in other parts of the United States, the concept of living the "mermaid life" has turned into something of a cutesy mantra for some people who live near the ocean (or wish they did). Rejuvenated interests in the half-human, half-fish mythical creatures has risen to such a degree that we've dropped anchor during a time when movies about them are prevalent … and some of ‘em, surprisingly, are quite good, from an effervescent comedic fantasy directed by Kung Fu Hustle's Stephen Chow to a very dark, bloody quasi-musical from Poland, of all places. The rules about mermaids change between all of ‘em, yet there are a few constants that inherently grab one's attention with the premise, notably the presence of a fish's tail as the lower half of their body. Within Russian folklore, the concept of "rusalka" -- a fearsome nature spirit that often dwells near water -- overlaps with the mythology of classical mermaids, which is why some might be confused by Mermaid: Lake of the Dead if they were hoping for a mermaid horror movie. Hoping for an effective horror movie is something else altogether.

In Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, the "monster" better resembles a siren than a mermaid: the lingering spirit of a young woman who resides near a dock and occasionally lures people into her sphere with entrancing magic. Once within the proximity of her voice and spells, the person struggles to do anything but proclaim their love and adoration for the spirit, whose desires shift erratically depending on its malicious or tormented mood. Early-20s swimmer Roma gets drawn into the magic of this one on the eve of his spontaneous bachelor party, leaving an internal mark on his being that impacts both his physical and mental health. Clues point towards the previous identity of this spirit, which leads to Roman and his fiancé, Marina, to investigate and hopefully find a way to appease her. The "mermaid" is a bitter entity, though, and will consume them if they don't figure out a solution sooner rather than later.

More than anything, Mermaid: Lake of the Dead gives off vibes very similar to those found in the American remake of The Ring, for several different reasons. For starters, to the filmmakers' credit, the film's visuals carry a lot of haunting beauty in each frame, luring those watching into an eerie, disquieting atmosphere very much in the same vein as Gore Verbinski's heavily stylized, and frequently damp; ghost story; some might see a bit of the Japan's Dark Water in there, too. On top of that, the story revolves around a lingering curse that passes from those who experience the mermaid -- not unlike watching that spooky video, complete with seeing warped visions -- and the process of escaping and removing said curse before time runs out. Those aren't inherently bad things, revolving around familiar emotional supernatural tropes and tapping into recognizable imagery of wet, stringy-hair spirits and their teal-coated surroundings. Expecting a mermaid and getting what's essentially an overpowered Samara isn't satisfying, but the film's engagement of the senses yearns to make up for that.

Boy, there isn't anything under the surface of Lake of the Dead, though, and the entrancement of the watery aesthetics wears off quick. It's hard to think of a more generic supernatural narrative than this one, going through the motions with its tale of doomed romance as the origin of the rusalka's spite, as if it's the last exhausted laps of a swimming session. The victims are youthful and absorbing to watch as their torment and investigation proceeds -- actress Viktoriya Agalakova could eventually become a force to be reckoned with -- but the absence of clarity about the spirit's powers and limitations translate into an uncommitted and mechanical wash of supernatural tension. The script doesn't lack for opportunities to develop the characters, either: the pacing intentionally wades along in hopes of building up the pressure of the suspense, yet that time gets devoted to the supernatural villain's rehash of a backstory instead of shaping the imminent victims into layered people. Thus, Mermaid stagnates. Quick.

Mermaid: Lake of the Dead raises the intensity level by splashing around with a few traditional jump scares that reemphasize that the villain isn't much of a "mermaid" at all, instead some kind of hypnotic water spirit that can extend or retract its influence however the plot deems necessary. While it's interesting to see a car some distance from a body of water -- and from the villain -- fill up with dank fluid and attempt to drown the people within, the introduction of this as a possibility opens up a can of worms about how much watery chaos and wrath the spirit could realistically conjure up from far away. Those are the types of considerations that get pardoned when the mythology's interesting or you care about the people drawn into the conflict; The Ring, after all, could be accused of similar (milder) issues. By the end, instead of casting a spell with its unique twist on such a water-dwelling mythical creature, Mermaid: Lake of the Dead mostly just made me wish they had slapped some scales and a fin on her, turned her into a killing machine, and made these unexciting people regret living the Mermaid Life™.

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