To say I was expecting a little more from this movie is to say nothing. If you’re on the lookout for a compelling horror-tale with a well-constructed plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time, you definitely shouldn’t bother with this flick.
I first acquainted myself with the art of Svyatoslav Podgaevsky, the director of The Mermaid, through his second movie “Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite.” I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied with his modern take on the infamous legend of Russian folklore. The movie was a breath of fresh air in the dying -or perhaps already dead- Russian cinema. And though a story about kids who accidentally summon a demon while playing a game is painfully familiar to all of us, it’s the first Russian horror movie I can remember, that does justice to its multiple American analogues.
Then came last year’s “The Bride” which also left a vivid, lasting impression on me. Noticing Podgaevsky’s professional growth spurt within the past three years, I had no hesitation in buying the ticket for his next upcoming film. The Mermaid, however, with its action-packed trailer and tastefully designed poster, much to my regret, turned out to be a disappointment.
The only element in the movie that accomplishes a desired result, in my opinion, is the atmosphere. What truly sets the mood of the film right from the start is the color pallete. The director sticks to minimalism and is selective about the colors in order to enhance their effect. Most scenes are shot in dark blue, green and grey under-lit tones which are constantly present in the everyday life of the protagonists, suggesting that the supernatural world and ours have overlapped. It may also show the power the paranormal forces have over feeble human nature and indicate that the main characters are doomed.
The opening scene is particularly gripping and atmospheric with a lantern illuminating the mist over the lake and a man failing to hold onto his wife as she’s being dragged down into the lake by an unseen force. The scene promises a bone-chilling, mystery-driven film. But it never happens.
After that scene we are transported into the present where, right off the bat, we are struck by a flat unconvincing performance of the lead actress Viktoria Agalakova, who plays Marina and who also starred in the previous film of the director “The Bride.”
And if in “The Bride” the cast is bigger, and the lead actress’ stiff portrayal is compensated by other more engaging performances which makes the miscasting forgivable and the movie watchable, in this one the spotlight is fully on her. Looking totally unaffected by the fact that her fiancée Roma (Efim Petrunin) is under the maddening spell of an evil spirit, we watch her mechanically act as the script dictates, accompanying her actions with forced facial expressions and movements. Naturally, we feel uninterested in what is going to happen to her before something ever does.
More than that, there isn’t a moment in the film when she looks troubled, let alone frightened, and thus all visibly massive efforts put into the creation of an uncanny villain are shattered. For when the leading lady isn’t terrified of the antagonist, the entire situation strikes the audience as fake.
All characters are badly-written, lack depth and unique traits that would make them memorable. And even though there’s a hint at a character arc in the film, it is so badly executed that it only evokes confusion. Marina is scared of water and doesn’t know how to swim. So, in order to save her boyfriend, she has to confront her fear of the water. Instead of slowly building her way up to overcoming it – like it would happen in a decent horror movie - she just willingly plunges into the lake without expressing fear or any conflicted emotions whatsoever. That certainly leaves the audience feeling cheated and disappointed once again.
To make matters even more disastrous, the plot unfolds at an unnaturally fast and smooth pace giving the film an obvious touch of cheesy phoniness. The intended twist is spoiled before it ever gets a chance to occur: in the scene where Marina gives a haircut to Roma’s sister (Sesil Plezhe) they discuss an old slavic ritual which involves hair cutting. An attentive viewer will promptly put the pieces together and deduce that the ritual is the key to destroying the Mermaid, and that it is due to be performed at the climax.
The movie overflows with jump scares, but instead of seamlessly fusing them with the plot, the director falls into the habit of cutting off an important scene and ‘freezing’ all the action in attempt to keep the audience focused on the looming screamer. It only reduces the boo effect though, for he might as well have been announcing on the loudspeaker “Brace yourself! There’s about to be a jump scare!”
When watching “The Mermaid: The Lake of The Dead” a feeling of déjà-vu grows stronger by the minute as the identical elements and techniques from other movies of Svyatoslav Podgaevsky rush to mind. Again, we are faced with a vicious female demon that “won’t leave you alone once she’s set her eyes upon you”. And again, we witness an otherwise promising idea being so shallowly and lazily carried out on screen that it starts to resemble an annoying broken record.