As long as there have been movies, there have been movies about mermaids. As far back as 1916 with A Daughter of the Gods, we have been finding ways to realize sirens unto the screen. Perhaps it is the mix of the aquatic, erotic, and the uncanny that draws us to them like the sailors featured in their stories. Yet, they are very rarely utilized within horror cinema. True, we have the cult classic Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1961), but mostly, the portrayal of merfolk has been more whimsical and light-hearted, exemplified by the undeniable icon of the subgenre The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1989). And yet, within the last decade, we have seen an utterly idiosyncratic take not just on the genre but also on that original fairy tale itself. Hailing from Poland comes The Lure, a queer musical body horror film about backstage drama and merfolk.
The Lure, loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid and a surreal reworking of teenage nostalgia, is about two mermaid sisters who come ashore to investigate the human world of the early 1980s in Warsaw, Poland. The two sisters come ashore thanks to a familial band, giving them a place to stay while studying the human world. The sisters join the family’s band at a nightclub they work for, becoming a popular attraction due to their fantastic qualities. As time progresses, one sister, Silver (Marta Mazurek), falls for the bassist son (Jakub Gierszał) of the band who tells her he has feelings for her but only sees her as a fish. The other sister, Golden (Michalina Olszańska), seeks to keep her sister safe while also feeding on unsuspecting men. Tensions rise and fall between the two groups as they continue to perform and live together throughout the remainder of the film until the Little Mermaid inspiration becomes more apparent and explicit.
Aesthetically and tonally, the film is scattershot in the best possible way. Sometimes between scenes, we can see a grimy, almost dystopian aesthetic with a dour tone transforms into a brightly lit, neon-colored dream with the sunniest of moods. The music, both the score and the show tunes themselves, similarly are as diverse. Written and composed by the Polish pop duo Ballady i Romanse, the songs sometimes sound like bubblegum pop, sometimes like soft rock ballads, and other times almost like hair metal. Major props must be given to director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, whose juggling of these tones and aesthetics make her out to be among the most promising directors of her generation, especially after proving herself as a real deal talent with her sophomore effort Fuga (2018).
The Lure sits at a particularly interesting spot as a Polish film, namely for how it breaks away from the usual notions of Polish cinema. Simplifying to a particular problematic degree, Poland has a troubled national cinema, having had to remake its industry after the end of Nazi occupation. As a member of the Soviet Union, Poland’s cinema embraced social realism as a primary aesthetic and was intensely interested in the politics of its era. Thus, like other nations in the USSR, Poland didn’t have much in the way of genre diversity. There is no national cinematic history of musicals, fantasy, or horror films for the cast and crew to draw upon. That makes how well the film plays out all the more spectacular.
The crew, especially Smoczyńska and writer Robert Bolesto, based the film on their nostalgia for the early eighties in Poland. They, alongside Ballady i Romanse (whom Bolesto based the mermaid sisters on), all grew up within the last decade of the USSR and creative performance families. During this period of history, Poland had a bleak national mood due to a failing economy and major labor protests. The film does not sugarcoat how abysmal the national mood is for the country. Several songs within the film use an ironic mix of bright poppy music with biting, cynical lyrics to highlight this disparity. It is also reflected in how the sisters keep discovering the uglier side of the human world, from their exploitation from payment to the shame of seeing sex. Yet, mingled in is genuine, sincere joy for the era, and the lives of these artists. In a way, this shows how, even in the bleakest moments, we can find joy in life.
Mermaid stories, specifically reworkings of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, are subtextually queer. Andersen’s tales often feature characters yearning for the unattainable, almost against hope, and inevitably end in tragedy. Andersen, a profoundly religious queer man who expressed biromantic feelings, could be abstracting these unrequited feelings into his work. Even the Disney version, with lyrics written by a gay man Howard Ashman, has a subtextual queer reading. The Lure makes this subtext explicit, namely through Silver and Golden showing romantic and sexual attraction to men and women. In particular, Golden has the one explicit queer sex scene of the film with a woman who has been hunting her and her sister.
That is even before you consider the specific trans reading of the story. In every version of the story, Aerial longs to belong to a world alien to her lived experience, one that she feels in her heart to be her true self. To become part of this world, she undergoes a literal transformation to pass as a member of that world. It is always a great sacrifice to herself, namely the loss of her voice and eventually the loss of her life, but it almost seems worth it for those moments of happiness beforehand. The Lure makes this subtext more explicit by making her transformation a literal surgery Silver undergoes that doesn’t take. This makes the film’s final act, where she has to decide between death and killing her love, all the more resonate. You can easily imagine how it must feel to transform yourself into part of a world only for it to reject you several times.
The Lure is a wonderful debut and breakout film for its immensely talented team and a wonderfully fun and grotesque musical. Within itself, it creates something like much-needed relief from the hegemony of fairy tale films of late, that are only ever dour and portentous or overly frivolous and foolish. It is predetermined to sit next to other classic horror musicals such as Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007), and Phantom of the Paradise (Brian DePalma, 1974).
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