Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers.
Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of mumblegore.
So often, creature features are touted for their phenomenal effects and complex monsters molded out of latex, fake blood, and a lot of love. But love is almost always found behind the scenes of monster movies, with the monster itself being a terrifying and violent being that must be defeated. However, director Perry Blackshear (They Look Like People) subverts that expectation in his 2020 mumblegore monster movie, The Siren.
Tom (Evan Dumouchel, They Look Like People) is a religious man who is also mute. He comes to a small boathouse on a lake to take a few days to himself before continuing on his spiritual journey. In the quiet and solitude, he can pray and prepare himself for whatever comes next. But, what he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with the mysterious Nina (Margaret Ying Drake, They Look Like People). He only ever sees her in the lake but they still develop an instant connection. But Nina isn’t just a woman who loves to swim; she is a rusalka, a monster that lurks in a lake and drowns unsuspecting swimmers.
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She’s drowned quite a few people, giving the lake a rather nasty reputation for swimmer disappearances. However, she drowned the wrong person and now has a target on her back. Al (MacLeod Andrews, They Look Like People) is grieving the death of his husband Michael and believes the siren is responsible for his untimely death. While on the hunt for his revenge, Al befriends Tom. This all forms a complex triangle of anger, love, and sadness that makes The Siren so fascinating to watch.
“[…]who you really love is Nina, our monster.“
This story orbits around a small cast of three characters, which is a trademark of the mumblegore subgenre. Often due to budgetary constraints, these small casts have an advantage in developing a strong relationship as the film rides on their trio’s chemistry (which can be a disadvantage depending on the cast). In the case of The Siren, all three actors previously worked together on Blackshear’s They Look Like People, so they were already familiar with one another. Their previous history only strengthens their chemistry in The Siren and makes you fully invest yourself in each of their stories. You want each of them to be happy and find fulfillment, while also realizing that in wishing for their happiness you are also wishing pain on another. It is a complicated relationship that Blackshear crafts perfectly and nails in the film’s short run time. Again, this is a testament to mumblegore. This is a movie about a monster, yes, but instead of focusing on the idea of monstrosity, Blackshear focuses on each of their three perspectives and builds a clearer picture of who our players really are.
These three characters are alone, three celestial bodies moving throughout space with a vague sense of purpose, but no real clarity about what they want. They are stuck in a stagnant orbit. Until they meet one another. As their gravitational fields collide, all three are drawn to each other and begin to find something they’ve been looking for: love, purpose, and catharsis.
But who you really love is Nina, our monster. Creature features are so often about the creature as a monster that can’t be understood. But The Siren wants you to empathize with the monster, who has her own tragic backstory and is constantly struggling with what she has become. She is a reluctant monster, a woman drowns in a lake and is forced into the life of the rusalka, a version of a siren that drowns anyone who comes near here. She is trapped in the lake, the place of her death, killing without knowing why, and trying. And yet, despite her curse, she still finds love in Tom. No longer is she listlessly swimming around the lake, searching for victims or purpose. Now, she has found a beacon, a shining light in the murky waters of her existence.
What is also very mumblegore about Nina is that her creature design is simple: black contacts. There are no elaborate effects or CGI setpieces, but just Nina’s eyes going black as her uncontrollable urge to murder washes over her. In a way, this makes her seem even less monstrous as there is no epic transform of her body; she is not being ripped apart to create something new, but rather being taken over by something else.
“The Siren is just a gorgeous, quiet creature feature that is full of tenderness, sadness, and joy.“
There is also the other love story revolving around Tom and Nina: the revenge-seeking Al who wishes to find who—or what—drowned his husband. He begins the film with a love letter to his deceased beloved where he muses about legends, the rusalka, and his vengeance. He so deeply misses his husband that he has become obsessed with hunting a legend, something that will give him a reason for his husband’s death. He is desperate but in love, a man who is not inherently violent, but one that has no idea to do with his rage. Despite loving Nina and wanting her to prevail and find some kind of peace, you also want Al to find peace. In the silence and the solitude of The Siren, you begin to think about what it means to truly find peace and if it is worth it.
The Siren is just a gorgeous, quiet creature feature that is full of tenderness, sadness, and joy. It works against audience expectations of a monster movie and creates a love story. Monsters need love, too, and not all monsters love what they have become. Instead of creating a gory scare-fest of men hunting a female creature, Blackshear creates a woman who, under a very awful set of circumstances, becomes a monster. We see through her eyes and get an inside look at one version of monstrosity.
The Siren is now streaming on Shudder. Have you watched The Siren yet? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!