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Plot: sleepy farming hamlet is terrorized by fierce spectral predator.

As far as we’re aware Thailand never had much of a horror scene in spite their rich history in being a reliable provider of the most wickedly insane action exploitation. Whereas Indonesia had Suzzanna and Malaysia had Maria Menado Thailand never had a horror queen as such – or at least none that we’re aware of. The Krasue has been part of Thai horror at least since 1973. Nang Nak (1999) was at the forefront of the "Thai New Wave" and since that time the country has spawned the very successful Art of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise as well as Ghost Lab (2021) and the Thai-South Korean co-production The Medium (2021). In between those there was Sang Krasue (แสงกระสือ domestically or Inhuman Kiss, internationally) or a ghost horror that used its monster as a metaphor for coming of age and sexual awakening. That the best Thai horror since P (2005) was selected (but not nominated) for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards is enough of a grave injustice by itself. What Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) was to Indonesia and what Revenge Of the Pontianak (2019) was to Malaysia, Inhuman Kiss could and should have been to Thailand. This is probably the most enrapturing romance since A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) almost thirty years before.

There’s a world of interesting mythical creatures that speak to the imagination to be found in the folklore of Asia. While the white-robed long black-haired ghosts is the one that has penetrated the Western world through cultural osmosis there are so many others. In Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines, and Vietnam) the most visually interesting of those (at least to undiscerning and unaware Western eyes) ghosts or phi (ผี) is the Krasue (กระสือ) (Kui'yang in Indonesia, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. The male counterpart to the Krasue is the Krahang (กระหัง). In the classic Indonesian horror romp Lake Eerie (1974) Suzzanna briefly transforms into a Krasue next to her iconic and beloved sundelbolong as does Amy Weber’s The Evil Queen in Dangerous Seductress (1992). In the Western hemisphere the Far East folkloric and mythological bestiary remains practically unknown, sadly.

Inhuman Kiss is an interesting combination of young talent and dyed-in-the-wool veterans. Sitisiri Mongkolsiri is a relative newcomer in Thai cinema. He directed one of the story vignettes for the Last Summer (2013) anthology as well as two episodes of the series Girl From Nowhere (2018-2021) that had Phantira Pipityakorn as a guest star for an episode on 2021. Chookiat Sakveerakul (who’s also active as a director and occasional editor) wrote Body (2007) and the JeeJa Yanin martial arts classic Chocolate (2008). In all likelihood he’s responsible for the very human story and the romance at the heart of Inhuman Kiss. Sangar Chatchairungruang executive produced the Danny and Oxide Chun Pang crime caper Bangkok Dangerous (2000) (remade for the American market with Nicolas Cage in the headlining role, quite unnecessarily and with little in the way of fanfare, in 2008). What director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri brings to Inhuman Kiss can perhaps best be described as a very humanist approach. The horror (and the Krasue) are obviously the main draw but Mongkolsiri recognizes that the human story is even more important.

Thailand, 1940. At the dawn of World War II, under the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the country is engaged in the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and the Franco-Thai War. In a farming muban (hamlet) somewhere in the Phutthamonthon District, west of Bangkok, Sai (Phantira Pipityakorn) is living with her constable father Phaen (Sahatchai Chumrum), her mother (Duangjai Hiransri), and superstitious grandmother (Namngen Boonnark). As a girl on the verge of womanhood she has grown up on old folkloric stories and with her two loyal childhood friends Noi (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang) and Jerd (Sapol Assawamunkong). Noi is a student of medicine who dreams of becoming a doctor and Sai herself wants nothing more than to be a nurse. The two volunteer at the local hospital. Jerd, coming from a less affluent family, does menial work in the fields as a laborer. For a while now Sai has been waking up with inexplicable scratches on her chest and blood on her sheets. For about as long her sleepy village has seen the equally inexplicable slaughter of chickens, cattle and livestock. This has struck fear into the hearts of the superstitious townsfolk. Unexpectedly brigand Tad (Surasak Wongthai) and his bandits ride into town from Salaya, a nearby tambon (sub-district) of Salaya. Tad claims that the hamlet is hiding a Krasue and that they refuse to leave until they have its head.

Walking through the forest they played in as kids Noi follows the disembodied head of the Krasue only to learn that it’s in fact his beloved Sai. As an ardent student of science and the empirical method Noi undertakes a pilgrimage to the local monastery to learn about Krasue from the monk (Makara Supinacharoen, as Makorn Supinacharoen). He learns of a certain herb that stalls the transformation. This will fix the problem temporarily until the two can come up with a more permanent solution. Jerd meanwhile joins Tard and his bandits to hunt the Krasue. As both Noi and Jerd show romantic interest in Sai she’s left in a terrible predicament with her current condition. As Tard’s grip on Jerd tightens and he sinks into the blackest despair Noi and Sai grow closer as a couple. Meanwhile the bandits resort to increasingly draconic measures to locate the Krasue necessitating Sai’s constable father to stand up to them. Things come to violent head as Tard’s men raid the village during a nocturnal Krasue attack and Tard reveals his true ogrish Krahang form. At wit’s end Noi and Sai try to flee to Bangkok. A terrible revelation kept secret for generations forces Sai’s father into a choice that will change the blossoming romance between the two youngsters forever.

The beauty of Inhuman Kiss lies not so much in what it does but how it goes about doing it. It’s both unassuming and effortlessly multilayered. It’s exactly what you want it to be. First and foremost, Inhuman Kiss is a beautiful coming of age story and a deeply tragic romance. However, look beyond that and there’s an equally solid folkloric horror story here, although that obviously serves more as window-dressing for the larger story being told. It’s absolutely no hyperbole when the most apt comparison is Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Like that piece of classic Hong Kong horror romance Inhuman Kiss too elegantly fuses horror with romance and terror-inducing denizens of the dark. There’s argument to be made that this might not be as rich in subtext as P (2005) but by the same token P (2005) never was this atmospheric and intense. It is however no question that Inhuman Kiss benefits from all the technological advances of the near decade and a half since. The effects work is a combination of practical in-camera trickery with a helping of digital wizardry for the grander, more ambitious scenes. While the special effects are vitally important for a production like this the lead actress is even moreso. On that front Phantira Pipityakorn is a godsend. Not only is she cute as a dish, she can actually act with the best of them. That she’s able to carry a production of this magnitude by her lonesome speaks volumes to her innate talent. For now she remains just a television actress, the question is how long it will be until she ascends her regional borders and becomes an international force.

It’s a tall order for any director to tell a human story within the confines of a horror framework where the goal is, first and foremost, to scare and repulse. At heart Inhuman Kiss is a coming of age story and a doomed romance that uses the horror as a metaphor for the loss of the innocence of youth and the pains of adolescence. What really speaks to the strength of Inhuman Kiss as a feature is that you glean from it what you want. Ghost horror, coming of age within the context of World War II, the experience of first romances and heartbreaks – it’s all here. That Sitisiri Mongkolsiri makes that delicate balancing act look so effortless makes it all the more impressive. It’s unbelievable that Inhuman Kiss remains so overlooked and underestimated. That Hollywood is slow in recognizing international talent is nothing but a truism at this point. That Inhuman Kiss didn’t even manage to score a nomination says enough about the endemic ignorance and disinterest of the Academy in anything that isn’t American. Those who do enjoy foreign cinema (and who aren’t turned off by the ideas of subtitles) can consider this another Asian horror classic, minor or major.

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.