What I'm Watching: The Drownsman
I'm going to finish up the Octoberween reviewathon with some of my favourite underdog movies that have slipped under people's radar. While I'm busy watching The Crow today, I'll leave you with my thoughts on The Drownsman.
The story revolves around Madison, who slips and hits her head on a dock one night, and falls into the lake. That would be bad enough, but while's she's out and under the water, she has a strange experience where she wakes up briefly in the clutches of a horrible figure. She wakes back up soaking on the dock thanks to her friends, but the experience leaves her with a crippling fear of water, that over the course of the following year absolutely ruins her relationship with her circle of friends, which comes to a head when she can't even get out of her bedroom to be the maid of honour at her best friend's wedding because it's raining out.
Angry over this, Hannah organises an intervention for the following night, complete with a medium that will just wave some incense around to try and give Madison a placebo effect and make things go away and convince her there are no monsters in the water. Things go *horribly* wrong, Madison sees the man again when they convince her to submerge into a tub filled with water as a kind of aversion therapy, and the fake medium actually sees him as well.
While Madison researches her phobia and her visions of this strange figure, which turn out to match up with a serial killer from 20 or so years ago, her friends start disappearing in mysterious ways involving water.
The mystery of the Drownsman and Madison's connection to him unfold, and I found this movie to be such a treat. The cast is super likable, especially Madison, and even when Hannah is pissed off that her wedding was ruined, you can still sympathise with both people. I've been a fan of Michelle Mylett for some time now, catching her in tiny guest spots here and there, waiting for her to get a starring role like this.
The pace of this movie is pretty much perfect. It starts off with a glimpse at the Drownsman's previous killing spree, and immediately into Madison's accident. It keeps the tension high, with the intervention and seance being used to keep the horror going, move the plot forward, AND introduce the cast. The economy of storytelling is well used, and having a decent sized cast for Donner to pick off while they try and chase down the mystery lets the plot move and keep the tension high for most of the film.
It is such a great use of metaphor to give Madison this fear of water, and then personify it in the supernatural spirit of Sebastian Donner. It works on multiple levels, of just a plain story of trying to conquer your fears, but also in trying to survive a maniac killer, *and* having a personification of the fears to fight against. It builds wonderfully to Madison literally confronting both her physical and mental versions of the fear.
Making the Drownsman a creature that can use water against you is brilliant. It does that trick that I often say Stephen King does so well, in making mundane things absolutely terrifying. Hydrophobia is a real thing, and bad enough if you have it, but to add in that any puddle of water could be used as a portal that the Drownsman could come through is great. Water is *everywhere* when you stop to think about it, trying to avoid it is damned near impossible, and crippling if you take it to extremes. But take that already terrible thing, and add in something that could grab you, take you, and drown you, and it makes it that much worse. Madison's friends' frustrations at what is a seemingly irrational fear is understandable from an outsider's perspective, but they're all on board once they see the reality of things.
The Drownsman is a great throwback to classic slasher supernatural horror. I've seen a lot of reviews calling it a throwback to 80s slashers, but I think once you slap the time period on there, it creates expectations this movie *doesn't* meet. It's a modern movie, but bringing back some story types that hearken back to classic slashers. It's more about the slasher style and the supernatural bent, than it is about the time period or any sort of style you might associate with that side of things.
I'm sure some people will roll their eyes and laugh at people being yanked through tables thanks to Donner's watery portals and into his world, but I love it. Partly because there is some cheese to it, but it's such a great use of a mundane thing as a means to attack, that can get you anywhere, and the clever use of photography and trickery to yank someone down into a sink is scary as much as it may be silly looking. It's an impossible situation that shouldn't be harmful, but oop, there they go... It causes visual dissonance, because in this example, you shouldn't disappear down a sink, but since the *water* is the portal, you're gone. Tricking the brain with the visual wrongness is part of what makes it work for me, but I can see why others will laugh. But it's also no worse than some things Freddy Krueger did to pull kids into his boiler room.
Madison's quest to solve her fears, to conquer them, is enthralling, and elicited more than one cheer from me every time she stepped up and confronted it head on. Madison is not a passive thing just being chased for the whole movie. She's active, she's got drive, she tries to figure this out on her own terms, and when she needs to, when her friends need her most, she charges headlong into danger, and it's great, it's fulfilling, and rewarding.
Sadly, the movie drops the ball at the last second by taking some of that away from her because they wanted to do the classic twist ending. But while that does ruin some of her agency, it doesn't take away from her confronting her fears. It just means she ultimately failed in defeating the Drownsman. It ruins the metaphor more than the fact. I would've been much happier if she had been 100% successful in conquering both her fears *and* the monster, but I guess one out of two ain't bad in this case. It is nowhere near as bad as some other movies I've watched where they completely take away any kind of victory. In fact, letting her have some sort of victory over her fears actually makes it more satisfying, because she at least moved forward in some respects. It doesn't so much as take away from any sort of victory, it just means there's more story to tell. And I suppose it works on the metaphorical level if you want to read into it that phobias don't just go away, and are a constant, lifelong struggle.
So yeah, The Drownsman told a solid story that really kept moving, with good scares, good use of fears, a likable cast, and a great new horror villain. Sebastian Donner has a great drowned look to him, with a clever gimmick that hasn't really been done much in horror, and he really deserves to be known by more people. He could easily be right up there with other icons of horror. He needs a little work, but the Drownsman is well on his way. I can easily see him one day being spoken of in the same breath as Jason Voorhees.
If you love a good mix of supernatural and slasher, this is a great, wonderful movie to scratch that itch. The movie slipped by a lot of people, and is a cult classic waiting to happen.