Drownsman, The (2014)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-05-06 20:13

Written by: Chad Archibald, Cody Calahan
Directed by: Chad Archibald
Starring: Michelle Mylett, Caroline Palmer, and Gemma Bird Matheson

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

How long can you hold your breath?

Chasing the ghosts of the 80s (and particularly 80s slashers) has been something of a pastime for recent horror filmmakers, and Chad Archibald is the latest to throw his hat into the ring with The Drownsman. From a tonal perspective, Archibald brings an almost refreshingly muted reverence, as he’s crafted more of a spiritual successor rather than a cheeky homage. Here is the genre transplanted without comment, warts and all, and, for all its good intentions, The Drownsman does get bogged down by its director’s enthusiasm for stuffing an entire slasher franchise into one movie. What starts as an urban legend degenerates into a lurid, familial soap opera to diminishing results.

Its hook is irresistible and straight out the slasher playbook: when Madison (Michelle Mylett) slips on a beer bottle and falls into a lake during a party (I swear, this is an otherwise straight-faced slasher!), she has a vision of a monstrous being trying to drown her. A year later, the encounter has left her so traumatized that she can’t bear to even be around water, and when a rainstorm keeps her from attending her best friend’s (Caroline Korycki) wedding, an intervention—complete with a faux séance—is in order. Predictably, it goes very poorly, as they conjure the Drownsman,(Ry Barrett) the unrested spirit of a serial killer exacting watery vengeance from beyond the grace.

Clearly inspired by the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Archibald has crafted an intriguing mythology that can stand alongside other supernatural slashers: just as one can’t escape sleep, one cannot avoid water, the medium through which the Drownsman emerges to claim his victims. As absurd as it sounds, even innocuous glasses of water become terrifying prospects for these characters. And stuff like sinks and washing machines? Forget about it—household appliances haven’t been this horrifying since you let your dishes pile up for a week (and by you, I definitely mean you and not me). Mercifully, the Drownsman spares the toilet—you can’t just go and steal a demon’s gimmick, after all.

I jest, but I must reiterate that Archibald is completely serious about this shit, and it works to a point. For a while, he channels the oppressive atmospherics of the films guiding The Drownsman. Elm Street is again an obvious reference point, what with the titular wraith luring victims to a grungy boiler room heightened by a touch of unreality. It’s hell re-imagined as a Saw movie, where rust and grime gild elaborate, industrial torture apparatuses surrounded by purgatorial darkness. Dread permeates the film in the form of ominous lighting bathing the characters in deep shadows, while the camera lurks and hovers around these characters, circling them with a preternatural sense of doom.

If only the camera could consistently capture anything interesting. Archibald may have crafted a fine hook, but once he allows you to wriggle loose, it becomes clear he doesn’t have much more. Mylett is a suitably plucky and sympathetic anchor as Madison, but everyone surrounding her serves little purpose beyond extending the plot and providing fodder for the Drownsman. Even the best friend, Hannah, is confounding: here’s a girl who spends her wedding night bickering with her friend over a severe phobia and who stages an intervention in lieu of taking a honeymoon (her husband is remarkably nonexistent during this whole ordeal). It’d read as sacrificial and heartwarming if you believed for a second these two were good friends; instead, their interactions are awkward and wooden (though hardly any more so than a typical slasher, I guess). The only time these characters feel like people is during a rare humorous moment that has them hurriedly shuffling off of an elevator to avoid another passengers’ water bottle.

Many slashers compensate for uninteresting characters with gruesome and varied splatter scenes, but The Drownsman can’t quite oblige, not when each death sequence has its slasher simply dragging people to his dungeon and submerging them in one torture device or another. It’s an excruciating fate but also a dull one in this context, especially when the film settles on a repetitive cycle that intersperses the Drownsman’s antics with Madison’s investigation into her tormenter. With little recourse, the film plunges deeper into its own mythology to peel back the layers of this serial killer’s life, with the details ranging from ridiculously sublime (his mother carried him for 19 months before giving birth) to the mundane (a paper trail takes Madison from one witness to the next testifying about his horrific crimes).

Eventually, you realize that Archibald’s mythology is a little too fully-formed when he resorts to the typical revelations surrounding his killer’s relationship with his main target. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in The Drownsman 4 or some other later sequel desperately attempting to inject some intrigue into a tired mythos. This film manages to overexpose its monster in one go. As always, monsters are less scary once they’ve been reduced to men, and the Drownsman isn’t even afforded the opportunity to become an anti-hero like his predecessors. Instead , he remains a dull cast-off from the nu-metal era with little to show besides a cliché backstory and hulking fits of rage.

Nearly a year after debuting at Fantasia, The Drownsman arrives on Blu-ray with little fanfare. Anchor Bay’s disc boasts a slick presentation to highlight the film’s solid production values (The Drownsman is nicely crafted on what I assume to be a low budget). The lack of extras means the film speaks for itself, which might be just as well considering it wears so much on its sleeve, with its cover art leaving less doubt about its aspirations. In the spirit of many 80s slashers, the hand-painted image oversells a film that can’t live up to it, but it’s not for Archibald’s lack of effort. His chops and veneration for this genre are obvious—he only needs to match them with a script that functions beyond a killer premise.

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