The horror genre can always use more dark fairy tales, and while The Mermaid’s Song delivers the scares, they’re less grotesque, and more cerebral. And that’s exactly how I like them. Sure, the film has some body horror and kills, to be sure, but The Mermaid’s Song is at its best when portraying a child caught in an ever-deteriorating home life, wanting to change her situation, but feeling powerless and hopeless.
The film is loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, and directed by Nicholas Humphries, perhaps best known to readers for directing the M is for Messiah segment in ABC’s of Death 2.5 (2016). The movie opens on Charlotte (Katelyn Mager: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters 2013), a young girl growing up with a rag-tag group of entertainers in 1930s America. Run by her morally-flexible father, George (Brendan Taylor: Fargo TV series), the troupe runs a mermaid-themed singing act out of their sprawling farmhouse. The spunky girl spends her time collecting fireflies while sweaty, sunburned Okies ogle the dancing ladies and pine for the day when they can afford a trip to Atlantic City, where the real action is.
Things soon trend downward with the arrival of two mysterious strangers: Gertrude, a crone-like woman claiming to be Charlotte’s grandmother (Barbara Wallace: Riverdale TV series), and Randall (Iwan Rheon: Game of Thrones TV series), a mid-level gangster looking to “invest” in the financially ailing dance crew.
“She found us here; she can find us anywhere,” says George, speaking of Gertrude. “Maybe it’s time to pay the debt.”
The “debt” refers to the price a mermaid pays to lose her tail and gain legs. This defection to the human world causes an imbalance between our realm and the sea. Unbeknownst to the little girl, her mother, Serena (Natasha Quirke: Lost in Space 2018), ditched the ocean long ago to marry George. It must have been a hell of a romance to leave the sea for Depression-era humanity. But that imbalance must be restored, and can only occur when the ex-mermaid’s daughter returns to the ocean to live as a mermaid. Serena’s having none of it, slashing her wrists in an attempt to cancel the debt, leaving Charlotte more lost than ever.
Several years pass and Randall rolls back in, strong-arming control of the dance house, forcing George to sell his whiskey and prostituting the dancers. It’s only through this trauma that Charlotte’s mermaid powers come to the fore, most notably her ability to control others with her siren singing. Randall immediately sees the commercial value in this. When he forces Charlotte to join the stage act, the joint really starts hopping, with chain-smoking farmers feeling compelled to buy shot after shot of Randall’s whiskey.
With money comes problems, and as the situation gets more complicated and traumatic, Charlotte finally realizes she has a choice: Use her mind-controlling singing to exploit humanity, or return to the sea where she may finally feel at home. Charlotte has finally found the ability to affect change, a position that has eluded her for so long. And while some viewers may see her mermaid transformation as a metaphor for blossoming womanhood, I read it more as a child taking on responsibility, and while not yet attaining adulthood, at least making a giant step in that direction. Like the title of that book I keep seeing at Target, the “princess” saves herself in this one.
In all, The Mermaid’s Song is well worth watching. While period movies are tough to produce, the film’s costumes, hair, music and set pieces are pretty close to what you’d see on Boardwalk Empire. Mager and Rheon do a good job with a script that sometimes dips below par. Rheon often cuts-and-pastes his delivery from his performances on Game of Thrones, but since I actually LIKED his Ramsay Bolton character, this is acceptable. (Don’t look at me like that.)
The inevitable bloodbath amidst Charlotte’s transformation is well done and creative. The methods she uses to coerce her enemies to kill themselves are interesting and actually relative to certain characters’ plot arcs. Her final metamorphosis is scary and effective. Ariel, she ain’t.
Still, the movie occurs entirely on the dancing troupe’s property, and this takes a toll on pacing. Films with one location need a very kinetic script akin to a David Mamet play, and the screenplay just lacks the caffeine needed to keep you entirely invested. Some viewers may find themselves checking their watches. The Mermaid’s Song takes a while to get where it’s going, but it finishes up as a unique take on a classic children’s story.
Sometimes, choice is the greatest power imaginable.
The Mermaid’s Song was released on digital on September 18th. Available on Amazon Here.