MAY 4, 2015
There have been a number of horror films about people dealing with their fears (The Fear and its sequel, the more recent Fear Clinic), but apart from agoraphobia - a desired affliction for producers because it's a good excuse to not shoot outdoors - most of them present a variety of different things that scare its characters. Someone's afraid of the dark, another one's afraid of spiders, etc. The Drownsman is one of those rare ones to focus on one particular phobia, and it's the FIRST I can recall where said phobia is aquaphobia, aka the fear of water*. Since it's a horror movie, it proves to be not an unfounded one, as one by one her friends realize (too late, of course, since this is a slasher) that their friend isn't crazy - the water really IS out to get them.
Well, what's IN the water I mean, namely the title character. But while her fear kicks off after a near-drowning in a lake, the film quite enjoyably opts to limit the size of the water sources that the Drownsman emerges from. Rather than constantly have the characters find ways to go into lakes, oceans, or even tubs (after the first 20 minutes, in the scene that springs him on the group), The Drownsman comes at them from puddles, leaks, a rinsing station at a salon, even a small spill from a bottle of water. There's a certain Freddy-esque fun to these scenes; just as the Elm St movies allowed anything to happen as long as it was possible for the character to doze off, here he can show up if there's even a drop of water nearby, which in a normal world there almost always is (hell he can get me right now from three different spots in my office alone).
And like some Freddy kill scenes we see our characters being pulled from the real world into the Drownsman's, allowing the movie to sort of double up on its kill scenes. Like, we see them doing whatever and then UH OH WATER! and getting pulled into their desk or a sink or whatever (director Chad Archibald employs some great lo-fi techniques to sell these images instead of CGI - big thumbs up there), and the scenes are usually drawn out in a kind of Final Destination-y way, making them feel like full blown death scenes on their own. But then the character wakes up in The Drownsman's little dungeon (akin to Freddy's boiler room) and they get killed for real, in a less elaborate but not exactly instant death sequence of its own. There are only four or five kills in the movie, but this gives them double the action and even more suspense; you can hope they don't get sucked into his world in the first place, and then you can hope they find their way out of it.
Admittedly, this also allows Archibald to pad his runtime a bit. It's not a particularly elaborate story (not really a complaint, it IS a slasher film after all), and even with the lengthened kill scenes the movie still runs south of 90 minutes with slow credits. I wouldn't have noticed if not for an awkward omission that at first I thought was intentional: there's a curious shortage of male characters in the movie. When we meet our group of four pals (a fifth is introduced later), one of them has just gotten engaged at the party that they've all just exited, and asks our heroine Madison to be her maid of honor. Then Madison nearly drowns (unrelated!) and we cut to a year later, where the now-bride is furious at Madison for missing the wedding. We can see that it's raining, and Madison's eyes widen at the sight of a puddle on the floor near the bride, so we can assume her accident has left her with a paralyzing fear of the water - but why couldn't we just see this wedding? Why does the audience have to piece together something that drives the plot?
Additionally, throughout the film we never once meet the groom, making me wonder for a while if the director was intentionally sidelining all of the males for some reason. It's around 30 minutes before we meet our first male character (an older guy whose daughter disappeared, presumably taken by The Drownsman), and from then on, apart from the big guy himself, I think the only other male is an orderly at the hospital where one of the exposition-y people is housed, someone who has like 15 seconds of screentime. Everyone else, even background extras, is a female - it almost HAS to be a conscious choice, but for what purpose I do not know. It's a relief in one respect, however - without a guy around the movie is the rare modern slasher that doesn't include a goddamn love triangle, and for that I am thankful.
I also appreciated Archibald's direction, which included things like cutaways and closeups (no longer a given, sadly) but wasn't over edited to the point of incoherency. In fact he seems to be inspired a bit by the likes of James Wan; the trips to the Drownsman's domain, bathed in red (but with slices of green here and there) reminded me of Insidious (specifically the Lipstick Demon's lair), and his love of cutaways to dripping water recalls Black Sabbath (a frequent and acknowledged influence on Wan). The script isn't the best thing ever written by any means, but the direction more or less made up for it - Anchor Bay's track record as of late has been pretty woeful, which I know because I've dutifully watched just about everything they've sent me - this and Atticus Institute are the only ones in what seems like a year that I've enjoyed enough to write about. Neither are classics, but their hearts are in the right place and they get more right than wrong, which (again) is rare enough to sadly warrant mentioning.
I just wish the movie was more like its cover art! I admit this one might have been pushed down in the pile of movies I plan to watch if not for the very 80s, big VHS box-inspired cover, which suggested something more schlocky and fun than the film actually offered. It's actually a pretty serious movie, and as someone who is afraid of all kinds of fish (!) I can't really mock the idea of a person shrieking and getting into fetal position because it starts to rain - everyone's afraid of something, and those who aren't afraid of that thing probably find it hard to understand why. That said, I did have to chuckle a bit when (spoiler?) our heroine triumphantly drinks a glass of water to face her fear (she had been getting fluids intravenously), because it's followed by her fairly easily going out in the rain, which you'd think would be the harder thing for her. It'd be like if I beat my ichthyophobia by gobbling down a filet o fish, and then casually wandered into the New England Aquarium. This isn't how baby steps works!
So it's an OK movie, a perfectly good rental - I can't really see a purchase making much sense as it's not the kind of thing you're likely to rewatch. Plus, the Bay didn't bother adding any bonus features whatsoever (not even a trailer), and the audio mix is a bit wonky - the requisite shrieks during the climax were all distorted, prompting me to lower my volume to -45 or so (it's usually -30, -25). Didn't have trouble before then, but it was loud/obnoxious enough to warrant mentioning, especially as it was near the end and thus if you're watching late (as it is a horror movie) the offending part will likely wake a roommate, possibly even a neighbor, if you happen to have it up to normal volume. Otherwise the presentation is solid, and it's an improvement over the team's Antisocial, a not-great "infected" (read: zombie, basically) movie that cribbed a bit too much from The Signal for my liking, though it had some fun ideas (the zombie plague spread through social media!). That one has a sequel already in the can, and this one ends with the seeming promise of a followup - guess which one I'm more excited about?
What say you?
*Don't say Jaws, you wannabe know-it-all. Big difference between a character trait and a narrative.