Haitian voodoo collides with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. ERZULIE isn’t exactly that but it’s the story of four women who get together for a vacation and come across a mermaid priestess. In legend, Erzulie Dantor is a protector of women, children, and those less fortunate. In this film, Erzulie (Leila Anastasia Scott) arrives to protect our four protagonists: Fay (Zoe Graham), Wendy (Courtney Olivier), Violet (Elizabeth Trieu), and Allison (Haley Raines).
Shot over the course of 12 days on a small budget, it might seem difficult to create a voodoo mermaid movie, but ERZULIE doesn’t heavily rely on special effects shots but instead uses practical effects in order to tell its story. The end result of that isn’t so much a mermaid film as it is a film about a powerful protector of women. (More Ariel with legs than Ariel with fins and a shell bra.) It lends a feminist message to the piece, which I’m sure is what first-time director Christine Chen wanted when she co-wrote the film with Camille Gladney.
Opening on a Louisiana resort in a great scene that will have people thinking about Jaws, the story picks up after the death of a resort guest while he and some friends were relaxing in the waterways of the resort. This was an excellent way to jump into a debut director’s film. Unfortunately, the first act of the film slows the pacing so that we can meet our four protagonists and understand why each needs the vacation. Fay, in particular, is in a relationship gone sour.
What accentuates the slow pacing of the first act is the lighting. Not only does the film rely on a lot of dialogue and exposition dumping in order to get to the action and voodoo, but all of the night shots are poorly lit, making it as difficult to see as that “Game of Thrones” episode from the last season everyone complained about. Not being able to see much while also having to listen to so much dialogue was rough.
What carries the first third of ERZULIE is its acting. All four women are stellar as is Jason Kirkpatrick who plays Rhett, the resort owner’s son who serves as a villain in the story, dumping toxic waste into the waters of Louisiana. There is a cartoonishness to his performance, but it’s fun to watch. On the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Biglane who plays Fay’s boyfriend. His performance is also cartoonish but it’s so over the top and dramatic that it comes off as if he’s auditioning for a daytime soap opera. He doesn’t have much screen time, but it was at that point that I wish this film had more time to get made. 12 days just doesn’t feel like enough time to get all of the best takes needed.
Of everyone in the film, Leila Anastasia Scott truly stands out, not just in her voodoo priestess makeup, but in her performance of the character. In nearly every scene, I felt uneasy and unsure of what she would do next. The way she talks through her clenched jaw, her piercing stares, and the confidence that she brings to the character of Erzulie steals the show.
Her arrival helps pick up the pacing of the film and gives this story of feminine heroism a strong identity while also playing into environmental issues since she is a creature of water and the resort has been dumping toxic waste. These big ideas do get a bit lost in my opinion, thanks to the lack of lighting to be able to see still. It ultimately becomes ERZULIE’s biggest problem, but I can’t fault Chen as a director with a small budget for that.
As a director and writer, she has created some strong characters with really fun elements based on legends that aren’t often used in film. It’s obvious that the film was shot quickly, but she was able to make a film that looked nice when it was daytime and pulled some fun performances out of her cast. I’d love to see more of her vision on future projects and hopefully, she’ll get more time with a bigger budget.
ERZULIE is now available On Demand.