The Drownsman (2014)
Dir. Chad Archibald
Written by Chad Archibald, Cody Calahan
Starring Michelle Mylett, Caroline Korycki, Gemma Bird Matheson, Ry Barrett
Madison (Michelle Mylett, ANTISOCIAL) has a problem. She has a deathly phobia of water. Put a glass of water next to her, she gets uncomfortable. Force her to step over a puddle, she begins to panic. Going out in the rain is completely out of the question. How she bathes (she looks suspiciously clean), or, for that matter, how she avoids an agonizing death via dehydration, are not questions the movie is interested in pondering, but just rest assured, this lady suffers from severe water intolerance. Now, to you and me, and especially to Madison’s four meddling besties, this idea may seem unworkable, even asinine, at least for anyone who is not of a Wicked Witch persuasion. I mean, think how annoying it is to go out anywhere with your cousin who has a peanut allergy. This chick can’t go anywhere they serve water. But Madison is resolute in her no-water policy. Besties let their frustration with this all-consuming neurosis spill out when Maddy misses the wedding of her best friend Hannah (Caroline Palmer, BITE, in her first role) due to the rain. Hannah is not happy, kicking in the door on her terrified friend, dripping wet and still in her wedding dress, and demanding this water-hating bitch get her shit together (No word on how the new husband feels about his bride's decision to spend their wedding night berating her friend on her inconvenient choice of phobias, the fact that she just got married never comes up again).
Fortunately, Hannah is the proactive type and quickly formulates a foolproof plan for trying to cure the simpering hydrophobe by rounding up four friends and having a seance while they force Maddy’s into a bath (I seem to remember an episode of Dr. Phil which recommends exactly this treatment, so it’s pretty solid science). Besties are of the opinion that immersing this poor girl in the very thing she fears while practising the dark arts around her will help, or something, following the obvious sound logic laid out in that classic business plan:
1: Completely submerge friend in whatever it is they fear most
2: Summon dark spirits
I wonder if they’d try the same treatment for a friend with arachnophobia? Or coulrophobia? That might be more fun to watch.
Anyway, it would be easy to side with the friends’ frustration here if we didn’t know already that Madison is right, she somehow knows that there’s a supernatural serial killer nicknamed “The Drownsman,” who for vaguely defined reasons* has the magic ability to grab anyone who is near water and drag them back to his magic house (I thought this was some sort of dream space or something, but no, at the end it turns out it has a door you can just walk out of and a mailing address and everything, it’s just also accessible via the world’s waterways) where he presumably sits around thinking of various different gimmicky ways to drown people. Actually this seems like it might never even have been a problem, but the seance combined with the bathtub get this guy’s attention, and suddenly everyone present is in danger of getting Drownsman’d.
This is all a perfectly fine, respectably idiotic premise for a throwback slasher, of course, but very little comes of it. This is one of those dull, Platinum-Dunes-esque modern serial killer films which generally looks nice and is put together competently enough, but is way too dumb to be scary but not fun enough to be very entertaining. It’s naked ambition to mimic 80’s franchise slashers (especially Freddy… “The Drownsman is sort of like 'Nightmare on Elm Street' with water instead of dreams.” writes a characteristically perceptive IMBD reviewer) is laudable in a dumb sort of way; the modern age hasn’t really done much to meet its required quota of name branded gimmick killers, and we could always use one more. But this movie demonstrates pretty effectively why modern horror movies struggle with this concept. Despite the goofy gimmick and a few flickers of creative sadism, the production is just too grim and drab to cultivate the right tone for it. The best of the old gimmick slasher flicks --and by no means all of them even then-- find the right balance between a pretense of taking the danger seriously and keeping things light enough that you can enjoy the one thing you’re really there for, which is applaud-worthy kills. Part of that unique alchemical reaction probably came from the inherent cheerful amateurishness of a lot of those productions, and another part certainly came from their earnest sense of dorky, irresponsible fun at a time when these things seemed a lot more shocking. DROWNSMAN, with its muted palette of grey-green muck and moody realism, just comes across as too dour. It’s not really its fault -- how was it supposed to replicate those things, so much of which just came from the context of the time? -- but even so, it’s an especially egregious example of why most modern slashers can’t recapture the peculiar tone of their obvious inspirations.
Well, that’s par for the course these days and we take what we can get. But even so, DROWNSMAN still doesn’t offer much to recommend it. It’s openly and even proudly derivative, but it usually just seems to be going through the motions without a lot of flair of its own to add. Drowning, it turns out, is not a very cinematic sort of death, although you gotta give this Drownsman guy credit for constantly changing up the specifics of his kills so it doesn’t get too repetitive (hey, variety is the spice of life; drownsmaning people seems to be his only hobby, so good for him for keeping it fresh). But an all-drowning format means there’s no gore, and at the end of the day every kill is just lot of splashing and a body floating in water with a surprised look on its face. Fleeting glimmers of scary ideas -- a watery glass coffin in particular should rattle claustrophobics-- don’t add up to much, and it all seems so paint-by-numbers there’s never any tension whatsoever. The idea that something as common as water could pose a menace might have been a workable source of paranoia in the right hands, but needless to say this movie doesn’t have the slightest idea how to pull that off. It seems ridiculous without even the decency to be funny, despite the film’s predilection for staring at small amounts of water while scary music plays. And the dude himself is just wet, he doesn’t offer much personality or much menace, and like every wannabe franchise killer these days he looks like he’s trying way too hard to end up on a Iron Maiden album cover.
So yeah, DROWNSMAN is just about as generic and undistinguished as they come, right down to the pat twist ending which is so played out it borders on parody (spoiler: Maddy fights Drownsy and sticks a lit flare in his eye, causing him to fall backwards, and then for some reason seems overly certain this will solve everything and so walks out without searching for the body or anything. Fire kills water, right? That’s just science. It would be ridiculous to think this supernatural ghost would somehow survive and spring out at her right before the credits role). It’s not exactly an embarrassment or anything, but it might actually have been more enjoyable to watch if it was. The very quintessence of competent mediocrity trying to coast by on secondhand nostalgia. Or, to put it in a hackier form: this one’s all wet.
*He spent 18 months in the womb, where he could hear his mother’s heartbeat, we’re told. How that mildly interesting bit of medical trivia translates into becoming a supernatural water ghost serial killer with a drowning gimmick is anyone’s guess.