2018, NR, 108 min. Directed by Xavier Gens. Starring Ray Stevenson, David Oakes, Aura Garrido.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 7, 2018
If you watched AMC's The Terror and thought to yourself, "What this really needs is ravening hordes of mermen," then Xavier Gens' period monster flick is a must-see. It's a far remove from the grisly shock of his 2007 New French Extremity stomach-churner Frontier(s), or from the gruesome amorality of his postapocalyptic survival nightmare The Divide, but keeps to his recurrent theme of how society's thin skin is torn away when no one is looking.
In the opening moments of World War I, a British meteorologist known only as Friend (Oakes, like Tom Hiddleston with a hole in his heart) has been dispatched to a rocky outcrop somewhere in the South Atlantic. His unlikely name is the first of many clear thematic nods to Moby Dick (and, increasingly, Heart of Darkness) as he finds his predecessor as meteorologist absent, and the only other resident is surly lighthouse keeper Gruner (the inimitable Stevenson, grizzled and world-weary, a moral compass with a broken needle). Well, that's not quite accurate. Every night, dozens of subaquatic, blue-skinned, sharp-toothed beasts emerge to kill the humans, and every night the humans slaughter them by the dozen.
But why? Why the bloodshed? The script, adapted by Jesús Olmo (28 Weeks Later) and Eron Sheean (Errors of the Human Body) from Albert Sánchez Piñol's novel (with some potentially inadvertent nods to Stuart Gordon's most underrated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, Dagon), posits many possibilities; not least of them is what Friend first sees as an unholy relationship between Gruner and one of the merfolk, Aneris (Garrido). There's an inherent tension there, the unease that some people may have felt about Sally Hawkins hooking up with a fish god in The Shape of Water, but amplified by the implications of subjugation, rape, and Aneris' seeming loyalty to her abuser.
Monster movies have always been, at their best, metaphorical, and Gens injects a melancholic subtext about imperialism, colonialism, and the drive for – and rightful fear of – isolation. The grinding repetition of the men's nightly defense of the tower sometimes bears heavy on the audience (most especially its patience), but in those slack moments the bleak and menacing cinematography of Daniel Aranyó is almost distractingly beautiful. Somehow he turns the vacation destination of Lanzarote into the ends of the Earth, and you'll feel that chill on your soul.