The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead
Directed by: Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy
Run time: 90 minutes
The Lowdown: This year, if you watch just one Russian import, overdubbed with bad English, about a vengeful killer mermaid terrorizing a young fiancé, it better be The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, because holy hell, this is one little genre flick with serious bite.
Simply put, The Mermaid is fucked up AND fucking great.
It’s the kind of confident-as-balls film that basically spells out the entire plot in a stylized introduction with dreaded voiceover narration, so you immediately know it’s either going to be cool as hell or a total letdown.
The deeper it gets, though, the more you realize that The Mermaid is actually avoiding all the pitfalls that typically doom direct-to-DVD genre films.
There’s a remote cabin where a personal tragedy happened years earlier. A young man trying to survive his bachelor party so he can marry his blonde bride. And an ancient lore that any man who dares kiss a mermaid will be under her spell and unable to escape until he finally confesses his love and she kills him.
The Mermaid sticks every landing and is keen to the small details that separate great horror films from mediocre ones.
Case in point, if you watch carefully, there’s water in almost every single frame of the film. Why is that important? Because the mermaids in The Mermaid can magically appear as long as there the tiniest pool of wet. And once you realize that, you suddenly get tense every time you see even a small puddle on the floor.
Mermaids also can control water, which is a pretty neat little upgrade to their mythology.
The Mermaid flows like an acid dream, deftly morphing from one cool sequence to the next. A dream turns into a nightmare that breeds a remarkable jump scare and then submerges once again, consistently returning to its central water imagery again and again.
The English dub track is both appropriately awful and, perhaps, intentionally funny.
There’s even a character embodying Death, and Death is obsessed with the mermaid too.
While the dub may induce groans, the score to The Mermaid is fantastic. And the jump scares – leave it to the Russians to understand the power of a perfectly placed jump scare. There’s one scene in particular that made me literally leap up off the couch and bring my arms straight to my chest.
Did I mention the twists? Just when you think The Mermaid is over, it keeps coming back, bigger, badder and better with each new twist.
I can’t remember the last time I put on a film with absolutely zero knowledge of what I might discover and found myself so thoroughly tickled with delight and the thrill of discovery.
It’s still early in the new year, but The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead is sitting near the top of my Best of 2019 list already. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Hell yes, killer hot mermaids.
Nudity – Brief.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Um, did you read the title of the movie?
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Sony Pictures, 115 minutes, R, DVD): Somewhere between the first time viewers ever laid eyes on Lisbeth Salander in the 2009 Swedish adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s two sequels, through David Fincher’s obligatory English remake of the original film in 2011, to this new iteration, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the first Salander film not based on a book written by Stieg Larsson, something rather puzzling took place.
Salander, who has been portrayed by three different actresses in nine years, from Noomi Rapace (the first and best) to Rooney Mara (okay, but not great) to this latest incarnation courtesy of Claire Foy (channeling her inner Sarah Paulson), went from being a bisexual punk-rock hacker and anti-establishment icon to some misguided mash-up of James fucking Bond and The Batman.
Seriously, Foy’s take on Salander is a weird hybrid of uber-goth aesthetics mixed with the nihilistic personality of The Punisher. If she was a classic rock Foreigner song, she’d be Cold as Ice, and about as much fun to watch as reality TV preppers shunning society and stockpiling for Armageddon.
The best thing going for The Girl in the Spider’s Web is director Fede Alvarez, who knows a thing or two about making super dark art. But even Alvarez can’t overcome a plot that reeks of day-old action-movie cheese (yes, there are nuclear codes at play in Spider’s Web) and creaks from the weight of too many pedestrian plot contrivances (Salander’s sister is long believed dead, but is she really? Hmmm.)
The film’s worst offense, however, is its asinine representation of the NSA, which is depicted as a dank basement full of computer nerds with just one guy (LaKeith Stanfield) on a rogue mission to intercept Salander in Stockholm. Never mind that he doesn't clear his mission with any superiors or that the equivalent of a nuclear threat to national security doesn't prompt a single meeting, or that one guy on his own runs off to save the day without telling anyone else where he's going.
What made Salander such an iconic character when she was first introduced in print, and later on film, was her too-cool-for-school aloofness and her counter-culture trappings.
The world doesn’t need Lisbeth Salander leaping off bridges on a motorcycle or gunning down bad guys with an automatic weapon. It needs her oozing goth-erotica, bedding evil babes and bad boys alike and displaying her formidable hacking skills at every turn.
In that respect, The Girl in the Spider's Web is a colossal misfire, and hopefully the last film in the franchise.
Widows (Fox, 130 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): For his fourth feature film, Steve McQueen does the unthinkable – he kills off his A-list leading men, including Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal, in the first 15 minutes.
And Widows soars as a result.
The central plot is actually so clever that it’s a wonder no one ever thought to tackle the idea before. What might happen, McQueen wonders, if the women left behind after their criminal husbands were killed decided to finish the job their loved ones were attempting?
It definitely helps that McQueen enlists Viola Davis to play Veronica, the lead widow, who was married to Neeson’s Harry Rawlings. No one says squat about the fact that they’re a mixed-race couple, and Davis is fantastic in the role.
Just as good too is Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), who plays a pivotal crime boss whose menace and penchant for malice is displayed through an electrifying scene that deftly blends humor and white-knuckle suspense with a shockingly sudden blast of devastating violence.
McQueen takes chances that few directors might be willing to attempt. He films one extended back and forth featuring Colin Farrell from an unfamiliar vantage point that at first is off-putting until you realize the genius in McQueen’s decision to approach the moment in such a unique way.
Even Jacki Weaver, an incredible actress who seems to attack each new role as an opportunity to out-Jacki Weaver herself, shines as a brutally honest mother who offers some unbelievably toxic advice in an effort to save her daughter’s potential for a privileged life.
Widows is that rare accomplishment that plays both as a straight action thriller and a razor-sharp critique of the caste system that most humans blindly follow without question or rebuke.
Double Dragon: Collector’s Edition
IMAX Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
Grand-Daddy Day Care
A Private War
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Fifth Cord
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Fighting the Sky (High Octane Pictures, 97 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): The latest from director/co-writer Conrad Faraj is a surprisingly intense sci-fi exercise, at least in its early goings, that eventually careens off the rails with lizard aliens and time travel tropes that frustrate and exhaust viewers.
Beneath the Leaves (Vertical Entertainment, 90 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): BVB loves Doug Jones, the wonderful chameleon of an actor who can transform into otherworldly creatures and yet still make you feel the humanity and menace regardless of how many layers of makeup and prosthetics he’s wearing.
And when Jones simply acts, eschewing the practical effects, and exuding confidence in his natural, human form, he can be incredibly effective (Check out Raze if you’ve never seen it).
But in Beneath the Leaves, the new serial killer thriller co-starring Oscar winner Mira Sorvino and her father Paul Sorvino, Jones’ James Whitley is relegated to a distant second-fiddle in favor of an unrealistic, and toxic, police partners love affair, an over-abundance of misogynistic clichés and put-downs and a muddled mythology involving kidnapped children who are forced to revisit the most traumatic period of their lives once they’ve finally grown up and put their painful past behind them.
Painkillers (Kew Media Group, 83 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): Painkillers, the latest from director Roxy Shih, is an ambitious revisionist take on vampirism that mines personal tragedy and effectively develops its characters before letting loose with the crazy, gory goods.
It starts with John Clarke (Adam Huss), a revered surgeon, who suffers the death of his son in a freak accident while driving. The trauma calls forth a sudden, chilling and unexplained medical condition (think Parkinson’s acting like PTSD), which Clarke eventually, and accidentally, discovers can only be soothed through the consumption of human blood.
Clarke learns that all of the myths about vampires are fake save for one, the healing power of blood, and that there are rules that must be adhered to. For one, vampires can only drink their own blood once. And from that point forth, any blood they consume must be fresh.
Clarke, of course, thinks he is smart enough to find a work-around, and the scenes in Painkillers where he tries to feed his hunger using waste that can only be found at a hospital are both uncomfortable and awesomely cringe-worthy.
Not everything works in Painkillers, but when it does work, its fresh approach to a tired genre staple is very appreciated and well worth your time for a watch.