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The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team FANGRRLS comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're looking at 2001's She-Creature, a story about a woman and the man-eating mermaid she just can't stay away from.
When it comes to mythical creatures on screen, mermaids seem strangely absent from horror films. Mermaids certainly menace in films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and The Lighthouse, but they're just one element in those films. When it comes to mermaids taking the lead in a horror film, we're dealing with a short list. And once you weed out the demons (Siren), the Deep Ones (Dagon), the ones who are actually just psychologically tormented humans (Night Tide), and the innocent protagonists (Mermaid Down), it gets even shorter. The endangered monster mermaid was even lampooned in the 2011 meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods, in which a character yearns to see a merman simply because he's never seen one before.
(He gets his wish. Violently!)
Things have improved since 2011, with the release of Blue My Mind and The Lure (directed by Lisa Brühlmann and Agnieszka Smoczyńska, respectively). But long before The Lure's man-eating mermaid sisters, there was She-Creature: a period piece about a man-eating mermaid and Carla Gugino developing such an intense bond that they end up having a baby.
Also, the mermaid eats everybody except Carla Gugino.
She-Creature came into this world as one of five Creature Features made at the turn of the millennium. Legendary special effects artist Stan Winston had been wanting to produce films for quite some time. He teamed up with producer Lou Arkoff to co-produce a project for Cinemax: a series of made-for-TV movies based on American International Pictures movies. But these new Creature Features were not going to be remakes. Rather, directors and screenwriters were invited to use the titles of old AIP movies as inspiration for new scripts with new monsters, who would be designed and executed by Stan Winston and his team.
Writer/director Sebastian Gutiérrez used this opportunity to pitch a monstrous mermaid. He was inspired not by the original She-Creature, but by War of the Colossal Beast. (You might be familiar with these films from their appearances on Mystery Science Theater 3000.) It was only after the film was in post-production that the team thought She-Creature might be more suitable as a title.
Personally, I disagree. It's not that I don't like the title. She-Creature is a great title for a pulpy mid-century B-movie. But Gutiérrez's She-Creature is gothic, moody, more blood and shadow than gore and mayhem. It feels less like a love letter to American International Pictures and more like one to the early Hammer Horror films.
She-Creature opens in 1905 in Ireland. An actress named Lily (Carla Gugino) performs in her fiancé Angus' traveling sideshow as a beautiful mermaid. One night, Lily is accosted on her smoke break by the elderly Captain Woolrich, who claims that mermaids are both real and dangerous. Lily and Angus offer him a ride home, where they discover that the Captain has captured an honest-to-God mermaid.
Sensing an opportunity, Angus offers to buy her for his show, but the Captain refuses: the mermaid killed his wife and he wants to watch the creature die. Unable to take no for an answer, Angus returns to steal the mermaid. In the ensuing struggle, Angus and his men accidentally kill the old man, but take the mermaid and the Captain's notes on the creature anyway. He tells Lily that the old man changed his mind and sold the creature to him and gets them on a ship to America right away.
Lily isn't exactly for this idea, but she is drawn to the creature. She begins stealing away to spend time with her. One of the ship's crew turns out to be a former client of Lily's from her past life as a sex worker. When he threatens to expose her, the mermaid protects her... by eating him whole. Unfortunately, doing so brings her to the attention of the ship's crew, who see her as both a murderer and a bad omen. When the mermaid gives Lily the dead man's ring, she begins pouring through the old Captain's journals, where she learns just how dangerous the mermaid is.
But their burgeoning bond, both emotional and metaphysical, makes things complicated, even as more and more bodies hit the floor. When Lily tries to help the mermaid escape, the mermaid would rather lovingly examine Lily than leave. When the mermaid transforms into a human for a single night, it's Lily she looks to for comfort, laying her head in her lap. And when Lily realizes she's, despite being infertile, fallen pregnant through their psychic bond, the mermaid holds both their hands over Lily's belly as Lily asks about their child. Even when the mermaid unleashes her full fury on the crew, intent on feeding every man on board to her fellow mermaids, she pauses for Lily, marking her with a scratch before sparing her life. When Lily is rescued, she refuses to talk about what happened and devotes herself to raising their daughter.
She-Creature's sapphic subtext is barely subtextual. Even after Lily sees the mermaid transform into the monstrous Queen of the Lair, the ultimate mermaid monster, she describes her as "magnificent." When the mermaid is interrupted from nuzzling Lily, she immediately attacks and devours the man who intruded on them. The film ends with Lily telling us that she did eventually cross paths with the mother of her child again… but that's another story for another time. Given the implication that she survived that encounter and the nuance and depth of their relationship, I would assume their reunion went well. (Me, I'm thinking their daughter Parent Traps them. Call me, Cinemax!)
It's the care and attention paid to this relationship and these characters that elevate the film, supported by the excellent performances from Carla Gugino and Rya Kihlstedt. She-Creature is firmly on the side of its female characters — both Lily and the mermaid. When Lily's past as a sex worker and a thief comes to light, there are no prurient flashbacks. Her tearful confession to Angus is faced with nothing but love and support, a stark contrast to the gaslighting she receives when she starts to point out how dangerous the mermaid is. The near sexual assault the mermaid suffers at the hands of the crew is played out like the horrible thing it is. Even the fact that the mermaid is topless through the entire film feels more of a nod to the fact that she's a wild creature of the seas instead of an opportunity to ogle.
She-Creature certainly shows its age and its small budget ($3.5 million) in the production values, locations, and decidedly ahistorical costuming. But it also uses those limitations as opportunities to get creative, making the most of the truly impressive creature effects with careful lighting and precise editing. I might be confused as to what historical reference Lily's bodice is trying to make, but by the end of the film, I fully believe in the mermaid as a physical creature — both as the beautiful mermaid and as her nightmarish final form. Combine that with Lily and the mermaid's deep, nuanced relationship, and you've got a hidden gem of a horror film. Or should I say pearl?