SiREN (2016)

In the prologue to SiREN, the mysterious Mr Nyx (Justin Welborn) is called by the police to a church, where he finds the aftermath of a demonic conjuring gone horribly wrong, and a naked girl, her mouth covered in blood, who is evidently not of this world. Rather more knowledgeable about these sorts of phenomena than wannabe Satanists and the local constabulary, Nyx (that’s the Greek word for ‘night’) sweet-talks this strange and deadly creature into allowing him to put a band around her ankle, and so brings the monstrous femme fatale under his masculine control.

For all its supernatural trappings, in a sense this opening sequence subtly portrays the institution of marriage in its more traditional form: an older, more experienced groom takes possession – with a symbolic band – of a virginal bride, taming her independent spirit and constraining her wilder impulses so that she will do his bidding. This is significant, because in many ways SiREN is concerned not only with marital anxieties, but also with flipping the conventional gender roles in heterosexual unions. The first scene after the title shows a man (Chase Williamson) pushing a woman (Lindsey Garrett) roughly against the wall, before moving with her to the bed. “Look at me,” he says, as she starts to go down on him submissively, “Look at me, slut!” – and after an awkward pause he apologises.

This couple, it turns out, has not quite yet tied the knot, but they are sufficiently modern in their attitude to marriage that they are already resorting to rõle play to spice up their sex life. If he seems the dominant partner, that is just part of a game that they are playing together – and one with which neither is entirely comfortable. “Can we just be Jonah and Eva?”, asks Jonah. “You’re the one I want.” Yet his use of that word ‘slut’ – the term that made both of them hesitate awkwardly – betrays a certain conflict between what Jonah wants, and what he is getting. The rest of SiREN will tease out the implications of Jonah’s errant desire and its unexpected trajectory.

Armed with Eva’s permission to visit strip clubs but not “the ones where the girls don’t want to be there,” the essentially strait-laced Jonah goes out on a stag night with his irrepressible brother Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan) and long-time friends Rand (Hayes Mercure) and Elliott (Randy McDowell). After some grim times in town, they end up being lured by a stranger to a remote club, on the promise that it is “dripping with pussy.” In this country mansion, exotic BDSM pleasures are on offer, and esoteric exchanges are being made, with Mr Nyx presiding as occult MC. In trade for his three companions’ best childhood memories, special guest Jonah is brought face-to-face – through a screen – with Nyx’s now grown-up foundling Lily (Hannah Fierman), and after an odd but intense non-contact sexual experience, determines that he will rescue her from her cell, and release her from her bond. Little does Jonah realise just what he is unleashing, or how determined Nyx will be to get back his prize exhibit.

As soon as Fierman appears on screen, it becomes clear that SiREN, directed by Gregg Bishop (Dance of the Dead), is an expansion of ‘Amateur Night’, David Bruckner’s contribution to the found-footage anthology V/H/S (2012) in which Fierman’s vampiric Lily turns the tables on the three men who pick her up in a club with malevolent intent (Bruckner still serves here as executive producer and second unit director). Yet apart from the recognisable makeup and effects used to realise Lily’s look, and the key line “I like you” that she delivers as she imprints amorously onto Jonah (who is obviously the keeper of the foursome), this is a very different prospect from Bruckner’s short film. Dispensing with the Go Pro glasses that were central to the original’s leering male gaze, SiREN explores more deeply that strange no-man’s-land where male desire and dread merge. It also contains a scene of full penetrative rape – with a woman as perpetrator and a man as victim – that is thoroughly subversive, and would, along with the rest of the film, make an excellent talking point in any gender studies course.

She may go by ‘Lily’, but Nyx calls Fierman’s man-hungry, mate-happy monster of monogamy by her full name, Lilith – Lilith being, in Jewish folklore, the first wife of Adam. Unlike his second, better known wife Eve, Lilith was made in God’s image from the very same material as her husband, rather than merely fashioned as an appendage from one of Adam’s repurposed ribs. As her husband’s equal, Lilith refuses to submit to him, and so has been demonised ever since as everything terrifying (to patriarchy) about female independence and autonomy. The soon-to-be-married Jonah, a decent, modern everyman who is all for the (literal) liberation of oppressed women like Lily, finds himself caught between his own Lilith and Eva, and must decide whether he wants to settle into bourgeois domesticity with a connecting band on his finger, or to be swept off his feet as a trophy love object.

SiREN is inventive, scary, and also very funny – yes, even the rape scene – and brings a smart feminist point of view to its lost boys’ walk on the wild side.

© Anton Bitel