Nanny (2022)

In Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, a Senegalese domestic worker struggles to maintain her sanity while caring for the white child of a wealthy NYC family and scraping together money to emigrate her own son to her new home.  It’s essentially an atmospheric horror update to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, the second one I’ve seen this year after the South African apartheid horror Good Madam.  I personally preferred Good Madam, but Nanny earned better reviews and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so I’m out of sync with the consensus.  I suspect that’s because Nanny is less of a proper Horror Movie, landing the same accolades as an important “social thriller” that Get Out earned outside of horror circles in 2017 (in a way no other Blumhouse productions have in the years since, until now).  It’s an immigration story first & foremost, neatly containing all of its supernatural menace in its frequent nightmare & hallucination sequences in a way that the more straight-forward body possession story Good Madam does not.  Whichever spooky revision of Black Girl you prefer, it’s undeniably cool that they both exist, and remarkable that their distribution paths converged on the festival circuit this year – Nanny premiering locally at New Orleans Film Fest and Good Madam premiering at Overlook.

Comparisons aside, Nanny mostly holds together as a sharply tense, surprisingly funny domestic drama about working class exploitation, with plenty of spooky window dressing to maintain an eerie mood.  Heavily referencing African folklore figures like the arachnid trickster-god Anansi and the alluring water spirit Mami Wata, Jusu easily establishes a dense visual language in the film’s plentiful nightmare sequences & daytime hallucinations.  Spiders, mirrors, snakes, and mermaids creep into the frame at almost every turn, disrupting the labor exploitation story at the film’s core in violent jolts of surrealist imagery.  Highlighting that labor exploitation is the main point, though, and whatever supernatural scares accompany it are only there to provide texture.  With a few scattered edits, Nanny could easily be reconfigured into a standard Sundance drama about an undocumented worker’s grim daily routine sacrificing her own familial bonds to hold a wealthy family together for petty cash.  If anything, removing the supernatural horror elements might have left more room to dwell in the moments of discomfort, heartbreak, and rebirth in the film’s rushed ending, which would’ve been much more emotionally effective if the audience were allowed to fully sink into it.

Speaking generally, I’m happy that horror movies are starting to earn festival prestige & awards-season accolades instead of being siphoned off as disposable straight-to-streaming #content (which accounts for a lot of Blumhouse’s output these days).  Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance feels a little like Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture at the Oscars, though.  Technically, it’s an industry win for horror, but it’s such a safe, cleaned-up, presentable version of horror that it doesn’t leave much room for the victory to be repeated.  I would need an actual, physical intrusion of a devious spider-god or killer mermaid into the “real world” to get excited about what this movie’s success means for the prominence of the genre on awards ballots & festival red carpets.  As is, I get the sense that Jusu is much more interested in the Dardennes-style economic drama she gets to tell outside those horror elements, which were more of a funding & marketing hook than the main purpose of her story.  Thankfully, the horror industry is booming right now with or without festival accolades, so I can find what I’m personally looking for in stories like these plenty other places: Good Madam, Good Manners, His House, Zombi Child, I Am Not a Witch, etc., etc., etc.

-Brandon Ledet

The King’s Daughter (2022)

I fully understand the mockery that met the mermaid fantasy movie The King’s Daughter when it was dumped into theaters this January.  Filmed at Versailles in 2014, the cursed production has been collecting dust for seven long, bizarre years, mostly waiting for the funding needed to complete its CGI.  The King’s Daughter was supposed to be released as The Moon and Sun in the spring of 2015.  Obama was president then.  Its star, Kaya Scodelario, was a hot commodity, fresh off the set of the hit TV show Skins.  Its bargain bin CGI would’ve been laughable even seven years ago, but getting displaced outside its time only makes it feel goofier than it already is.  It’s a movie made of leftover scraps, loosely stitched together with Bridgerton-style “Once upon a time” narration from Julie Andrews, turning over each scene like the brittle pages of a crumbling book.  The King’s Daughter is the exact kind of barely presentable debacle that cordially invites internet mockery; it’s more punching bag than movie.

And yet, picking on it feels unnecessarily cruel.  This is a cute, harmless (and, despite itself, gay) wish-fulfillment fantasy for little girls.  Its target audience is so young & uncynical that it mostly gets away with being outdated & uncool.  Adults might snicker at every “Meanwhile …” interjection from Andrews that clumsily lunges us towards the next disconnected scene, but young children are only going to see an aspirational tale of a rebel artist who makes friends with a magical mermaid despite her mean father’s wishes.  Pierce Brosnan stars as a highly fictionalized King Louis XIV, who commissions the capture of two very special creatures: his illegitimate, impoverished daughter (Scodelario) & a mermaid citizen of Atlantis (Fan Bingbing).  The daughter has a total blast at Versailles, celebrated by her estranged father for her musical talents & her Individuality.  The mermaid has less fun as the king’s prisoner—held captive as a potential fountain of youth—but forms a semi-romantic friendship with his daughter that almost makes her own constant suffering worthwhile; it’s a pretty thankless role.  The whole movie is in service of making the daughter’s new life seem magical & great, so little girls in the audience can live their mermaid-friend fantasies through her.

There are obviously much better mermaid movies out there, from the kid-friendly romanticism of The Little Mermaid to the disco-beat eroticism of The Lure.  Considering the wealth of better-funded, better-publicized titles between those two extremes, The King’s Daughter is harmless & anonymous enough to deserve a pass.  If there’s any reason for an adult audience to seek this film out, it’s to see Pierce Brosnan’s over-the-top, flouncy-wigged performance as King Louis XIV, but I can’t claim that he’s enough of a hoot to be worth the 90-minute mediocrity that contains him.  Otherwise, the only real draw for this film is if you’re a wide-eyed child with a long-running mermaid fixation, in which case no shoddy CGI or online dunking was ever going to stop you from seeing this anyway.  The only real shame of the picture is that it chickens out of making that mermaid-kids’ fantasy explicitly gay, choosing instead to romantically pair Scodelario with a Fabio-style hunk to de-emphasize her obvious attraction to the mermaid.  It’s not the romance novel swashbuckler whose heart-song calls out to Scodelario in the middle of the night, though, and even the youngest, naivest children in the audience will see right through that ploy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mermaid (2016)

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It’s downright shocking how little of an impact The Mermaid is making in American theaters. Disregarding the fact that director Stephen Chow has two legitimate cult classics under his belt, Kung Fu Hustle & Shaolin Soccer, the film is also, no big deal, the single highest grossing film Chinese theaters of all time. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date (though I’ve heard great things about Journey to the West & haven’t seen it yet). In a better world The Mermaid would be making waves in American theaters at the very least out of cultural curiosity. In the world we live in it’s a difficult film to track down (opening to a beyond-depressing number of 35 theaters across the country), suffering a dismally small distribution for a remarkably silly film that truly deserves much, much better.

I’ll admit that for the first ten minutes or so of The Mermaid I had a somewhat awkward time adjusting to its comedic vibes. A trip through a tourist trap “museum” of “exotic animals” (think of Uncle Stan’s bullshit gift shop on Gravity Falls), a post-auction business meeting involving a malfunctioning jetpack, and a billionaire playboy’s rap video-opulence pool party all are enjoyably silly in  a minor way, but also a little awkward from the outside looking in. It isn’t until the titular mermaid hijacks the film’s narrative that the weirdness opens up in a beautifully satisfying way. The mermaid of The Mermaid‘s moniker not only steals the show with her effortlessly charming, singing, dancing, flying, skateboarding ways, she also brings out the best (and worst) in all the characters that surround her. What at first promises to be a dull male lead in a billionaire playboy pollution junkie ends up being a gutbusting buffoon & a worthy player in the mermaid’s literal fish out of water romance once she brings him to life. The film might need to get kickstarted before it wins you over, but once it gets rolling there’s a relentlessly bizarre, cartoonish sense of humor to it that’s genuinely eager to please in an endearing way.

In The Mermaid‘s mythology, humans & merpeople are both evolutionary descendants of apes. Merpeople just happen to descend from apes who lived in water, having no use for their legs & forming fish tails in their stead. Merpeople traditionally choose to avoid humans due to their historical tendency to hunt & maim their seafaring counterparts, but their populations are disrupted & effectively destroyed by a grand “reclamation” project that makes it no longer possible for the merpeople to live in reclusive peace. Because the heartless business man responsible for the destructive reclamation project is known in the tabloids to be a notorious “pervert”, the merpeople decide to send one of their own to seduce & assassinate him in cold blood. Things inevitably go awry when the mermaid falls in love with the business monster who has ruthlessly maimed her people for profits & brings out a better person from within his damaged soul. The question is whether she’s willing to betray her people in the name of true love or whether the business prick will change his heart in time to reverse the damage he’s done to the mermaid’s natural environment.

At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Parts of the film feel like an over-earnest romcom. Parts could pass as a heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, complete with real life images of very real big business pollution atrocities. Parts are a straight-up spoof of the 60s super-spy genre. The whole thing is bizarrely subverted & repurposed through Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens that feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that range from Tim & Eric to Looney Tunes to ZAZ-style genre parody. Chow is becoming a master of his own aesthetic, a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how “evil” humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects.

It’s not at all surprising that The Mermaid is performing so well in foreign markets. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding. What is surprising is that its commercial success isn’t translating well to American theaters (not that Sony’s distribution gave it much of a chance). This isn’t a bleak foreign film about the ravages of war & the emotional turmoil of the economically downtrodden (at least not the whole film works that way). It’s a sublimely silly, largely physical, slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming romance & a unique visual palette (one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use) at its core. It should be a commercial hit. If you have the chance to catch it in its limited domestic run, it might be worth a gamble of a ticket price. You’re likely to find something about it that’s worthwhile, since Chow covers so much ground here & the film is, at heart, a shameless crowdpleaser.

Side note: Part of the reason it might’ve been difficult to get on The Mermaid‘s wavelength in its opening minutes is that the version I saw was dubbed into Cantonese & then subtitled in English. The dissonance of this out of sync presentation was at first a little disorienting, but that awkwardness did fade a great deal in time. I do believe the opening minutes are the film’s weakest stretch, but the awkward effect of that double translation should probably still be noted & further points to just how mishandle this film’s distribution truly was.

-Brandon Ledet

Killer Mermaid (2014)

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The cover of Killer Mermaid (also known as Nymph or Mamula) is the main reason that I picked out this film. On the cover, there’s a girl in a bikini swimming in open water with a mermaid chasing after her. I knew it was going to be terrible, but I really was expecting it to be a bunch of fun like Piranha 3D orSharknado. Never judge a film by its cover. This movie was pure garbage and a complete waste of my time.

The beginning of the film was like a commercial for Sandals, except this was an all-inclusive shit show. Two American women, Lucy and Kelly, travel to Montenegro to visit one of their old college buddies, Alex. While they’re hanging out on Alex’s boat, they make the stupid decision of exploring Mamula, which is an island that was once used as a Nazi concentration camp. Once they’re on the island, they are hunted by a creepy, old fisherman who attempts to kill them in order to feed the killer mermaid that has yet to make an appearance. The killer mermaid is shown for less than 5 minutes at the very end of the film. That annoyed me so much because the only reason I wanted to watch the movie was to see a killer mermaid go on a killing spree or two. I didn’t want to spend an hour and a half watching a bunch of idiots trying to find their way off an island, but that’s exactly what ended up happening.

I’m getting bored just thinking about things to say about this boring movie. It was so hard for me to watch it until the end, but I had to find out if there was actually a killer mermaid. When she finally showed up for her 5 minutes of fame, she was a total dud. The scenery of Montenegro and Mamula was pretty incredible, but that was the only good thing about this entire film. Someone needs to take Killer Mermaid behind a barn and shoot it.

If you have absolutely nothing to do and want to waste 94 minutes, Killer Mermaid is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas