Finally! A horror movie where marginalized identities are incidental, not plot devices! A gay man trying to avenge his husband (gasp!); a buff mute guy, coming into his own after a life in church culture (double gasp!); an Asian American woman who’s confined to haunt the lake where she drowned and live out her demonic existence repeatedly luring men to her, seducing them, and subsequently drowning them… (all the gasps!?!)
The Rusalka is at its core a horror story, but it is much more than that. I had the privilege of seeing it at its North American premier at Brooklyn Horror Festival and the audience was definitely loving the film. As hinted above, the film is about a rusalka, or water demon (played by the captivating Margaret Ying Drake), who lures men to her watery lakebed home and drowns them. She genuinely strives for human companionship, but as soon as she gets physically close to someone the demonic forces take over and she drowns them, whether she wants to or not (I FEEL you girl, amiright?). Tom, the mute-but-more-importantly-buff guy finds himself swept up in her otherworldly charm from the moment he finds her outside his rented lakeside hut in the dead of night. Played by Evan Dumouchel, Tom is a serious, deeply romantic man looking to find himself on his first solo trip away from his church family. His neighbor, Al (MacLeod Andrews), is friendly but distant as he struggles with accepting the death of his husband, played by Director Perry Blackshear himself. His husband, as it happens, drowned in the very lake that the rusalka haunts — coincidence? I think not.
The tension grows as Al creeps closer to uncovering the truth of the rusalka legend and of his husband’s tragic death while Tom falls fast and hard for the beautiful demon. To be fair, she’s easy to fall for — funny, sweet, and eager to help him overcome his fear of large bodies of water — and as an audience member, you can’t help but start to fall for her too. Traditional horror elements shine through here and there in the form of ominous reveals in the blackness of the night and stretched moments of stress while the rusalka fights her demonic urges, but the most interesting use of horror comes through in the subverted tropes and unexpected diversions of the genre. Is the rusalka pure evil? Or is there something else below the curse that chains her to the water? And can Al, in all his vengeance and pain, possibly understand the gray areas that upset his idea of a fully malevolent monster? And Tom… sweet church-abandoning Tom… is he mistaken for putting his trust in a cursed, albeit charismatic, rusalka?
The music works to complete the eerie world of the rusalka-haunted lake and it was one of the elements that helped pushed this film into a place of distinctiveness. It was entirely provided by a women’s vocal ensemble from Eastern Europe, Kitka, who sing haunting melodies in multiple languages. The combination of slavic languages and even some sanskrit (according to an audience member who understood it) create the perfect atmosphere of the dangerously feminine and the ghostly unreal. Their album, The Rusalka Cycle, sounds like it was made just for this film, but it was merely the fortunate result of Blackshear’s musical research rather than a pre-determined collaboration.
My only complaint in the casting is that Blackshear didn’t hire gay and mute actors to play the characters with these identities — both are played by non-disabled straight men — but upon hearing Blackshear and his cast speak after the film, it became apparent why. The Rusalka is obviously a very low-budget horror (and all the better for its simple setting and main cast of 3) and the team that made it are a recurring filmmaking unit, having previously made They Look Like People in 2015. Just judging by the Thank You list in the credit crawl, the film was, at least in part, crowdsourced.
This brought me through an internal debate — is it better to represent marginalized identities on-screen, even if you can’t hire actors who fit those identities for the role? Ultimately, I decided that yes, representation is always better than non-representation — even if the actors are doing just that, acting. This isn’t Emma Stone playing an Asian American in Aloha. The Rusulka is a low-budget indie, made by a filmmaking quartet, trying, and succeeding, at portraying new types of characters, changing up horror tropes, and creating something truly special.