I could spend hours talking about why I love 1941’s The Wolf Man. There’s the makeup, the cast (Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi?!), and the movie’s importance to werewolf lore (silver-as-kryptonite and full-moon-transformations come from this film). But what will always get me about this movie is the ending. In it, Chaney’s werewolf dies at the hands of an ordinary man wielding a silver cane. In a twist of horrific fate, the man who kills him is his own father, unaware of his son’s curse. For all this movie gave the horror genre, one lesson stands out. Horror, says The Wolf Man, is tragedy. As I watched The Rusalka last week, I thought of The Wolf Man‘s message. And as the credits ran and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival audience cheered, I remembered why I loved it.
The Rusalka is the story of Tom, a mute man whose formerly devout Christian faith is beginning to falter. Tom takes a sabbatical to a remote lakehouse to contemplate his relationship with the church. There, he meets Al- a widower whose husband drowned (suspiciously) in the lake. Tom also meets Nina. The two fall each other almost instantly, but there’s something Tom doesn’t know. Nina is a “Rusalka”, a creature from Eastern European folklore with a terrible curse. Nina can’t ever leave the water. What’s worse, she has the almost insatiable hunger to drown people. We watch Tom grow a friendship with Al and a romance with Nina, all with a disturbing truth underlying their interactions. Nina, of course, drowned Al‘s husband.
“[The Rusalka] does more with three actors, one boathouse and a pair of colored contacts than most Hollywood Horror franchises could do with a billion dollars.”
We’ll return to the story in a moment. But first, let me say this: The Rusalka is one of the most well-crafted horror movies I’ve seen this year. For effects, filmmaker Perry Blackshear (They Look Like People) forgoes kitschy CGI and relies on sound, altering Nina’s voice and layering suspenseful scenes with subtle, intense sound beats. When the Rusalka side of Nina’s personality appears, Blackshear relies on black contacts and the performance of Margaret Ying Drake to create his monster. Now, I’m all about monster movie magic- Doug Jones is my spirit guide- but bodysuits and prosthetics just aren’t what The Rusalka calls for. It’s a grounded, practical movie. And the way the creative department stays true to that is just exceptional. This movie does more with three actors, one boathouse and a pair of colored contacts than most Hollywood Horror franchises could do with a billion dollars.
But the effects are hardly the only reason to watch this film. The cast, for example, fit their parts so well. As I mentioned, Margaret Ying Drake as Nina is exquisite. Her seamless transitions between animalistic murderer and a painfully lonely girl had the audience both terrified and touched. Evan Dumouchel as Tom paints a beautiful picture of a conflicted soul underneath boyish charm and humor. And MacLeod Andrews’ Al is the center of the tragedy and fear that defines this movie. There’s a heavy, suspenseful moment when he discovers what really happened to his husband, and not a single audience member was breathing during it. The cast took an emotional story and complex characters onto their shoulders and carried them with poise.
Alright, back to the story- This movie features one of the most honest storylines I can recall seeing in contemporary horror. In Nina we find a character that is both 100% monster and 100& human. She desperately wants to be with Tom, but her own nature holds her back. Blackshear conveys this through the use of daydream-like images from inside Nina‘s head. Generally, I’m not a fan of dream sequences conveying story but like the rest of the audience watching, my heart broke to see the simple, impossible love these sequences portrayed. Tom and Nina‘s romance is at the same time complicated and uncomplicated, charming and horrifying. You root for them despite the insanity of their love. You despair because you see the hope behind it.
Al‘s story, then, serves as a dark reflection of what Nina and Tom have. If their relationship is tragic because of what could be, Al‘s is tragic because of what will never be again. Al will occasionally serve as narrator of the film, speaking out loud to his husband Michael in a kind of prayer. Again, this is something that would usually impress me but Andrews’ monologues as Al are conversational and plain. There’s no attempt to be expositional or emotional. Which, by the way, makes them effectively both. Al is a reminder that no matter how much we love Nina and Tom, there are serious consequences just to Nina‘s existence. He can’t forgive Nina, and no matter how much we want to, neither can the audience.
“[The Rusalka] is a story about people trapped by their own nature. They are all unfixable, and worse, they are a lot like you.”
And that, ultimately, is the tragic horror of The Rusalka. It’s a story about people who can’t. Tom wants to connect, whether that’s with his church or Nina, but he can’t. Nina wants Tom, both as a lover and as a victim, but has to deny both those impulses. Al wants closure, to explain then avenge Michael‘s death, but both are outside his human capabilities. Just like The Wolf Man, whose characters can’t change what they are or what they’ve done, this is a story about people trapped by their own nature. They are all unfixable, and worse, they are a lot like you.
For more coverage of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, head to our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The Rusalka was my favorite film of the festival, but there were a ton of great ones. Check out my reviews of Perfect or Party Hard, Die Young. For fans of The ABC’s of Death, check out The Field Guide to Evil. Plus, horror review pro Chris Aitkens covered Welcome to Mercy and The Clovehitch Killer, and you absolutely can’t miss those. And for all your horror movie reviews, news, and interviews, keep lurking at Nightmare in Film Street.