The Lure, a Polish horror-musical about man-eating mermaids, was never meant for mainstream consumption. Those of us who lined up in the snow to catch this fishy fantasia at Sundance 2016 were either totally nonplussed or in love by the time the credits rolled, and it took a hot second for the genre-defying flick to find a home. It was eventually snagged by arthouse distributor Janus Films and released in one theater on February 1, 2017, reportedly earning a mere $7,370 during its opening weekend. The reviews it received were pretty positive, if Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, so it's not a future cult classic because it hasn't gotten its due or was critically maligned or otherwise buried. It's simply that the film's subversive, sexy themes and wild style were born for the midnight movie circuit.
In the hands of a slightly hipper studio like A24, The Lure could have been the next The Witch, but it honestly doesn't matter, especially now that it's gotten the fancy Criterion treatment for its United State DVD and Blu-ray release. I'm happy I sprang for the Blu-ray, which looks as thrilling and strange and beautiful as it was on the big screen. If you need The Lure in your life, it will find a way to wriggle into your hands.
Like Angela Carter and other fiercely feminist fairy tale revisionists, director Agnieszka Smoczynska and her team of brilliant co-conspirators go straight for the jugular with this coming-of-age tale about blood, sex, murder, and disco. Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are teenage mermaids who are lured to shore by the sounds of a young man named Mietek (Jakub Gierszal) crooning along to his guitar while his bandmates party on the beach. In song, they request a little help getting onto the beach, promising that they won't eat anyone in the process. Mietek and the drummer in his band help them ashore, although the singer promptly flips out when she sees their grotesquely slimy tails.
Despite the initial shock, the musicians bring Golden and Silver to the legendary Warsaw club where they work, the Adria. Their boss literally sniffs out the girls' presence backstage — turns out Silver and Golden smell a little fishy — and is introduced to them by the drummer, who shows off their curious physique up close and personal.
As it turns out, they can transform into two-legged ladies, but they are "smooth as Barbie dolls" between their legs, the drummer points out. Then he pours water on them and their legs transform into sinuous tails complete with suggestive slits that the boss is more than happy to examine. They're hired on the spot and soon become main attractions at the Adria; they move into the dingy apartment Mietek and the other musicians share and begin to enjoy life on land for the time being.
It's not all glitter and vodka shots, though; Silver becomes smitten with Mietek and his floppy-haired boy band vibes, much to Golden's concern. After all, they have big plans to swim to America once they're tired of Warsaw. Plus, Mietek is actually pretty grossed out by Silver's tail and declines to take her virginity the mermaid way. Golden and Silver's relationship grows more and more fraught as Silver contemplates getting her tail cut off and losing her voice in exchange for true love or lust with this One Direction reject. Unfortunately for Silver and Golden, Smoczynska and her crew take their cues from Hans Christian Andersen, Homer's hungry sirens, and artist Aleksandra Waliszewska's creepy cool paintings instead of Disney. There's no happy tails or trails in sight for our heroines.
The Lure is a fully realized fantasy from top to bottom, with original songs by Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, deft sound design for the mermaids' telepathic conversations, choreographed dance numbers, and prosthetic tails for the actresses. (There is some CGI in the film, but the majority of the effects are practical.) The colors are either eye-poppingly bright — sequins, smoke machines, disco balls, and dripping blood dominate — or grimy and depressing.
At the same time, the story itself is grounded in reality; it was inspired by the Wronska sisters, who grew up in and around the Adria, where their parents worked as musicians. Smoczynska also spent time growing up at a similar sort of supper club that was owned by her mother. The club is yet another character, a liminal space where it's not quite day or night, where it's easy to go back and forth between puberty and adulthood, sneaking cigarettes and boozy kisses with bad boys or girls. Teenage girlhood is all about that yin and yang, the neither here nor there, looking like a woman but feeling like a girl, and having a body that everyone wants to poke and prod and take their piece of.
At its gruesome heart, The Lure is relatable because it's about a girl who will give up any part of herself to be closer to the person she loves. And if that fails, well, you better freaking watch out for her sister.