If quiet horror is going to be a thing again, you won’t find the volume turned down more than in writer-director Perry Blackshear’s follow-up to They Look Like People – where a main character is not only mute but has his phone, which has a type-to-talk app, disabled early on, and much of the supernatural atmosphere depends on the sort of subtle soundscape that forces the viewer/listener to pay attention. Is that whispering or rippling water? It’s a minimalist story, too, with only three characters in the present-day frame – another is remembered, and another phones in – and action confined to a small house and a large lake. Several films have recently touched on mermaid or magical wildwood woman mythology, including The Lure, Spring and Thale; retitling The Rusalka as The Siren is likely to generate a bit of confusion with Siren (2010) and SiREN (2016), though there are another couple of Rusalka movies out there. This harks back a little to Night Tide, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and a few other ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ classics.
As in They Look Like People, Blackshear’s story is so tight that it could almost be a fable – but it’s considered from unexpected angles. Tom (Evan Dumouchel), unable to speak and afraid of the water since a childhood swimming accident left him with a crushed larynx, needs a break from his religious community. With some bravery considering his condition, he rents a house on a remote lake whose calm waters have claimed many victims. Al (MacLeod Andrews), who lives nearby, is still grieving for his drowned husband, and out for revenge against whatever took him. Tom notices traces of a damp presence – a wet handprint on the jetty, made by someone reaching out of the water – and then encounters Nina (Margaret Ying Drake), who visits by swimming across the lake and might be a tourist, but also might be a legendary murdering mermaid from Russian lore.
In quite a few stories on this pattern, the nature girl is mute and the land-dweller she gets involved with chatty and curious – but here it’s the other way round, which means Nina does a better job of pretending to be human but also has to hold up both sides of a conversation that keeps forcing her to ask herself uncomfortable questions about her conflicting needs for human contact and to drag men to their doom in the depths. They Look Like People featured the same key cast – who get to play a different set of relationships here, with the former lead Andrews shunted off to one side and Drake – the girlfriend excluded by the relationship of two guy friends in TLLP – getting the meatiest, most affecting role. It’s a love story and a tragedy, but also a modern relationships indie drama – with the nice touch of Nina sitting on the dock but always trailing her foot in the water, just as lovers on beds had to have a foot on the floor according to the Hays Code – and a proper monster movie.