Plot: two mermaids wash ashore in 1980s Poland. One is friendly, one is not.
You have to commend Agnieszka Smoczyńska for attempting something like this on what couldn’t have been too much of a budget. Córki Dancingu (or Daughters Of Dancing, for some reason released on the international market as The Lure) is not only a cautionary tale about the predatory nature of the entertainment industry and a vehicle for Smoczyńska to comment and criticize upon her upbringing as the daughter of a nightclub owner and her own seedy experience therein (in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine she confided, “My mother ran a night-dance club back in the day and I grew up breathing this atmosphere. That is where I had my first shot of vodka, first cigarette, first sexual disappointment and first important feeling for a boy."); at the same time it’s also a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Perhaps one day we’ll get an answer as to whether Smoczyńska was privy to the oeuvres of Jean Rollin or Jesús Franco growing up in hermetic 1980s Poland. Look at it as an Eurocult throwback and dissect it from that standpoint and suddenly The Lure becomes something else entirely. Was this always the design or something sheer serendipity? Who knows. Whatever the case if you’re expecting the family-friendly Disney version of the tale, look elsewhere.
Something like this inevitably wasn’t going to attract a mass audience and The Lure pretty much fell into obscurity after its Polish premiere and being screened at the 2016 Sundance and Fantasia Film Festivals. Truthfully, had anybody expected anything else? The Lure, for everything that it has going for it, is not exactly The Love Witch (2016). Anna Biller’s kaleidoscopic and psychotronic throwback to seventies fashion, exploitation and women’s undergarments had the benefit of looking like a long-lost and restored Tim Burton epic. The Lure has no such luck nor rich production values. It professes to be a window into late 80s Poland but at no point does the time period nor the setting affect or enhance the story being told. This effectively could have been set in present day with no meaningful impact or adverse effect on the story being told. The only thing that sets apart The Lure from its immediately competition is its musical aspect. However, unlike Bollywood entertainment or the mini-trend this was part of the songs in The Lure are mostly low energy, devoid of hooks and, well, depressing. Some of the lyrics are charming in their biting irony and supposed edginess. Kinga Preis’ rendition of Donna Summer’s perennial disco evergreen ‘I Feel Love’ is faithful to the original, the girls’ “help us come ashore” siren song is incredibly sexy in its two-line simplicity and ‘I Came to the City’ exudes mad energy. The remainder of the songs seldom as charged or sexy as these. They have a function where they appear - but that’s very, very faint praise, indeed.
Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska will look instantly familiar to the obscure – and weird cinema aficionado. Smoczyńska employs that age-old cult cinema and exploitation chestnut of the light- and dark-haired lead. Just like Gloria Prat and Susana Beltrán in Emilio Vieyra’s late sixties Argentinian kink-horror cycle, Jeanne Goupil and Catherine Wagener in Joël Séria's Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971), Soledad Miranda and Ewa Strömberg in Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri in Amuck (1972), Anulka Dziubinska and Marianne Morris in José Ramón Larraz' Vampyres (1974) or, perhaps more fittingly, the archetypical lead duo in any vintage Jean Rollin fantastique. Think of Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent in Requiem For A Vampire (1970), Marie-Georges Pascal and Patricia Cartier in The Grapes of Death (1978) or Marina Pierro and Françoise Blanchard in The Living Dead Girl (1982).
And there’s no way that Smoczyńska not chose these two actresses specifically. Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska. Mazurek sort of resembles Jaroslava Schallerová from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and Olszańska scorches with an aura of wanton desire and carnality not unlike the late Soledad Miranda. To their credit, Mazurek and Olszańska are naked early and often – and you have to admire these women for taking on a demanding (and nudity-heavy) role like this in this modern (and supposedly more enlightened) age and running with it. The only other name that looks vaguely familiar is Andrzej Konopka. Whether he’s in any way related to minor Eurocult star Magda Konopka - she of Satanik (1968), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), Our Lady of Lust (1972) and Sex, Demons and Death (1975) - we weren’t able to uncover.
Warsaw, Poland. The late 1980s. The Revolutions of 1989 heralded the collapse of Communism and the country has held its first partially free and democratic elections. A wind of change permeates the streets and districts as permissive Western influence is allowed to replace the old oppressive Soviet social values. At the dawn of this new age revue and cabaret clubs herald the socialist-style planned economy transforming into a market economy designed on the American capitalist model. On the banks of the Vistula river in Wisła rock band Figs n' Dates is rehearsing. The tones of the music lure nubile mermaid sisters Srebrna (or Silver) (Marta Mazurek) and Zlota (or Golden) (Michalina Olszańska) to the surface who immediately start chanting their alluring siren song. Almost momentarily doe-eyed bass guitarist Mietek (Jakub Gierszal) catches Silver’s eye. After assuring the musicians that they mean them no harm they are taken ashore. Golden insists that Silver shouldn’t involve herself with human business. She believes that her romantic interest in Mietek will spell doom for their collective dream to swim to America. Golden warns Silver not to fall in love but she’s smitten with Mietek.
Once on dry land the sisters grow legs and are taken in by Krysia (Kinga Preis). As a singer she introduces the girls to Janek (Zygmunt Malanowicz), the owner of the Adria cabaret club where her group Figs n' Dates functions as the in-house entertainment. Janek immediately recognizes the potential and possibilities of two half-naked teen girls with enchanting voices. He bombards Silver and Golden to back-up singers and has them doubling as a theatrical stripping act. While Silver refrains from consuming human hearts Golden has no such inhibitions. Silver longs nothing but to have a human lower body so she can consummate her love for Mietek. The attraction’s obviously mutual but to him she’s nothing but a fish. In no time Silver and Golden come to call themselves Córki Dancingu with Figs n' Dates as their backing band and become the main draw of the club. This to no end frustrates burlesque dancer Miss Muffet (Magdalena Cielecka).
Meanwhile the mutilated bodies left behind by Golden attract the attention of police officer Mo (Katarzyna Herman). As weeks turn into months soon the sisters attend a midnight show by hardcore punk band Triton. Their frontman Dedal (Marcin Kowalczyk), himself a denizen of the deep, had observed Golden on one of her nocturnal feeding sessions and knows what’s up. He informs Silver that she realistically has but two options of becoming fully human: undergo reconstructive surgery but lose her angelic voice or win his love and marry her prince but never be able to return to the sea again. On the first day of him marrying someone else Silver will be reduced to foam. Against all odds Silver holds out hope that Mietek will return to her even when he shows interest in another girl (Kaya Kolodziejczyk). Does love truly conquer all – or is the marine sister’s fate bound to Silver’s choice and thus doomed to end in tragedy, regardless?
The biggest stumbling block here (at least for us) is the insistence that this is an 80s period piece. For some reason we’re led to believe that the story is set in the late 1980s yet none of the fashion, hairstyles, and music really convey that this is supposed to be set in the year that’s it in. The club is littered with bright yellow “Saturday night fever” posters which scream 1979 rather than 1989. Around the 40-minute mark there’s a pounding goth-industrial club banger (complete with corresponding hairstyles and make-up) that strangely feels like 1999 rather than 1989. Instead of recalling Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy it’s far closer to the industrial rock of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie. If the songs were more like ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘I Came to the City’ than perhaps the constant fucking up of the time period could be overlooked. Further adding to the confusion later there’s a news report placing it at late as 1997. On top of all that Jakub Gierszal has the most obvious (and trendy) millennial anime sadboi haircut. There’s something to admire about Robert Bolesto even attempting something as ambitious as fusing a fairytale with a depressing coming of age tale that also happens to double as a cautionary tale about the entertainment/nightlife industry. To say that an exercise like that is a very delicate balancing act would be an understatement. While Bolesto succeeds in adapting the Christian Andersen fairytale and the cautionary tale about the entertainment/nightlife industry sort of works, the coming of age angle is rather underdeveloped. The only real cool thing is that Bolesto has the mermaid sisters communicate non-verbally via biosonar (just like dolphins). Then there’s the fact that Golden has no arc to speak of and nothing is made of her random acts of murder around the club. In true exploitation tradition The Lure doesn’t end so much as it just arbitrarily stops.
Perhaps it would have been better for Agnieszka Smoczyńska to spread the story across two features. A coming of age story set in late 1980s Poland would be interesting enough by itself, but even more so when it uses the mermaids’ mythical carnivorous cravings as a metaphor for their collective sexual awakening. The second, and more obvious, would be the entertainment industry cautionary tale that this very much wants to be, but never really becomes or is. As a throwback to classic Eurocult, specifically the French fantastique and Spanish fantaterror The Lure is among the best. For the average moviegoer this might just be a tad too weird for comfort. Regardless of everything that The Lure has going for it Ginger Snaps (2000) or Teeth (2007) this is not. The musical aspect is executed well enough but most of these songs miss the necessary hooks, big choruses or just the vibrant spirit that this sometimes requires. Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska acquit themselves well enough during the musical breaks but they tend to be better dancers than singers. Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) did the entire musical horror thing far better on average. The Lure was never going to attract a mass audience but it’s never for a lack of trying.