Mermaid’s Song is a strangely original movie about the absolute weakness of humanity – one starring impoverished prohibition-era perverts and mermaids. Directed by Nicholas Humphries and from a writing team that includes Bob Woolsey, Meagan Hotz, and Lindsey Mann, it gives several nods to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as its “inspiration”, though even diehard fans are likely to chuckle at the comparison.
Barely a teenager, Charlotte (Katelyn Mager) is a mermaid-human hybrid, only she’s just now realizing it. Living under the shadow of her mermaid mom’s suicide, she resides with her father and five older sisters on a stale farm-turned-dance parlor attraction where they barely earn their keep with their modest act. It’s here where the locals habitually attend to lose themselves in booze and burlesque – and the seductive sirens that welcome them to the show. As with legend, the song devolves like lullaby into a screech, unsettling and bizarre, and not without its requisite jump-scares.
While Charlotte’s puberty, loss of purity and subsequent fish metamorphosis should be the focus of this movie, these oddities suspiciously take a backseat to her father’s plight. Brendan Taylor gives a paralyzed portrait of George, an utterly impotent man, destroyed by his wife’s suicide and left to keep the show and family they built afloat. With the Great Depression on his shoulders, financial crisis thwarts him into dealings with infamous local gangster Randall (Iwan Rheon from Game of Thrones), whose interest in transforming the burlesque into a brothel puts the purity of George’s daughters in jeopardy, not to mention its criminality.
Rheon’s performance is top-notch here; an oxymoron, a most pleasant gangster that keeps you in pace with the chilling heartbeat of the fairy tale. If all that wasn’t enough to break a man, a mysterious elderly woman moves shiftless about their farmhouse, carrying with her a mysterious book of piscine imagery and insisting upon Charlotte’s return to the sea in order to re-situate the tilted balance between the worlds of liquid and land.
It’s about here where the genres begin to bump into each other, but fortunately the technical aspects of the film are brawny enough to lifeguard the picture into the third act, where it truly delivers the goods. The imagery is dusty and wet in the same frame (no doubt a compliment to cinematographer, Naim Sutherland), and the sound design just about perfect, masterfully mixing elements of soft shoe jazz and kitschy shim-sham with a unsettling score and underpinnings of ocean waves.
On one hand, Mermaid’s Song borrows tropes from multiple genres, leaving viewers wondering if they’re watching a gangster movie, musical, family melodrama, monster movie, coming-of-age story, or fairy tale. In an age when a movie like The Shape of Water can nab an Oscar for Best Picture, even interspecies romance must be taken seriously. However, its varying directions defy expectations and provide a breath of fresh air, as does its originality that make its flaws easy to forgive. The rub is…well, you simply have to wait and see. But when the last quarter of the picture arrives, you’ll be glad you stayed put.
The plot unfolds like a TV pilot and it takes the characters in wildly different directions at times, but Mermaid’s Song is brave enough to sidestep the haunted house experience and take its time transforming into terror out of a ridiculous premise. You’d think the filmmakers could possibly have delved deeper into the mythologies of mermaids or, at the very least, provided a clever and poignant analogy to Charlotte’s predicament. But this isn’t that type of movie, and the one that’s been made revels in its own stew of silly and serious just long enough to be enjoyable. For those reasons, it’s an ideal horror movie for those who don’t typically take refuge in the creep show.