In a spare bedroom of his Belmont house, the McGuffey artist-in-residence Russell Richards stands next to one of the stars of his latest short film, a grotesque stop motion model he built by hand. A replica of a 19th century phenomena called a Fiji Mermaid, the foot-and-a-half figure is grey-skinned, with shriveled breasts that hang over a fish’s lower body, laying horizontally with crazy gray hair, bug eyes and a leer on its face as it gnaws on the outstretched intestines of an incredibly life-like rat. The rodent itself took four days to make as Richards raced to complete it by the first of March so he could submit the 13 minute movie for a festival deadline.
“Like everything on this film it kept taking so long,” Richards says a little exhaustedly. Almost four years ago, he began work on the short movie after encountering a “real” Fiji Mermaid at a maritime museum on Rehoboth Beach, NJ. In the mid-1800s, carnivals and even P.T. Barnum touted a new attraction: a beautiful creature, half woman, half fish, that had been captured. Buy a ticket and she was available to gawk at somewhere inside.
The Fiji Mermaid was of course an elaborate hoax and a cruel buzzkill. Whoever expected a gorgeous sea nymph instead found a disgusting amalgamation: the upper torso of a dried-up dead monkey sewn on to the bottom of a dead fish. Papier Mâché was usually employed to heighten its revulsion.
A century and a half later, Richards was entranced. “It was just the creepiest damn thing,” he says, his eyes alive with the recollection. “Really convincingly done. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. That’s a movie monster there.”
If you’ve seen Richards’ first short film Bride of the Fly, or viewed his art at McGuffey or online, then you’re aware of his hyper-stylized, occasionally garish visual style. Highly informed by the fields of science fiction and fantasy, Richards’ imagination brings forth a cavalcade of ghouls and demented demons, yet they’re depicted with such affection that they’re not exactly scary, more to be tolerated and even loved than fought or detested.
Richards’ art is evenly split between these sorts of creatures and his renderings of nude female models, so Fiji Mermaid was almost an ideal project for him. “I was intrigued by the idea that they entice you in with visions of a sexy woman mermaid, but instead you get this hideous little creature,” he says. In a pivotal scene, the film’s protagonist makes out with a beautiful topless mermaid whose face morphs into that of the horrific Fiji Mermaid. One or the other eventually lures the forlorn man to his death.
“What if there really were horrid mermaid creatures like that,” he asks, “and the vision of a sexy mermaid was like the Siren call of Greek myth that lured sailors to their death? That’s the theme of this in my view.” In the film, the attraction of an exotic beauty is undeniable but the horrific seems equally magnetic. Perhaps the artist is telling us that both are to be loved and feared.
Out in Russell’s fenced-in backyard, a long gray square column lays abandoned in the sunburnt grass. Constructed near the end of filming, Richards had returned to Charlottesville from Coney Island where he filmed most of the movie during two frigid winter days. Shooting almost exclusively on 16mm film, he ran out during a sequence filmed in front of a concrete column. To make up the difference he had one built out of plywood and painted gray and finished the scene in his driveway in Belmont. “Damned if it didn’t match,” he says, beaming (it helped that his girlfriend Dea Detritus played the gypsy in that scene. Two friends—Shawn Decker and a model named Shakti—rounded out the cast).
The column is also one of the few props in the film not made by Richards. He traded a colleague a painting in exchange for it, as he struggled to fund the film. Initially financed by Kickstarter, he finished with his own money and unique barters for services like the construction of the fraying column.
Back inside the house, he stops beside a six foot high booth that sits in a corner of a back room. “Real Alive” it announces on the side and it is the film’s main prop, where the protagonist views the Fiji Mermaid in action. Faux barnacles on the base make it look like it’s been dragged out of the sea. The house is strewn with objects like these. On one wall hangs a framed portrait that was used for the tarot cards Russell made for the gypsy sequence. Down the steps and in the basement, an ornate light box created to resemble the kind of sign that used to hang outside buildings on the boardwalk at Coney Island leans on the cement floor. An early mold for the Fiji Mermaid rests on a nearby workbench.
“I could have made a feature with the amount of work I put into this film,” Russell surmises. Like Bride of the Fly, Fiji Mermaid is an idiosyncratic film where every frame was preconceived and painfully executed. “I knew this was going to be low budget but that I could design every damn frame of the film, and make it artful, cool to watch, and rich visually.”
“I also wanted it to be a knowledgeable film,” he says. “I have a tendency to really research things, so I looked into everything about mermaids and Coney Island and the old sideshows, so that I could sneak in all sorts of little references.”
It’s an approach to filmmaking that might be enriching for both viewer and the director, but is antediluvian in today’s film world, instead harkening back to directors of the 1960s and 70s, or perhaps a modern-day maverick like Darren Aronofsky or quirky auteur like Wes Anderson. So far, Richards’ approach has worked with his short films where the bizarre and abstract can flourish and are even welcomed.
Whether it will translate to something more substantial will be tested with one of his next projects, a prospective feature length movie. “All my films are going to be fantastical, with wild imagery, special effects, and within the confines of science fiction and horror,” he admits, sitting on the green couch in his living room. A collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories rests on a corner table next to him while a cat named Valis (after his favorite Philip K. Dick book) purrs on his lap. “They’ll be surreal and lurid.” In other words, what we’d expect from the mind of Russell Richards.