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Fantasia 2014: ‘The Drownsman’ has good ideas, terrible execution

Fantasia 2014: ‘The Drownsman’ has good ideas, terrible execution

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The Drownsman

Directed by Chad Archibald

Written by Chad Archibald and Cody Calahan

2014/Canada

It permeates.  That’s the answer to the question you will undoubtedly be asking, although Chad Archibald’s film The Drownsman isn’t quite the film to answer it.

After Madison (Michelle Mylett) suffers a near drowning experience during which she hallucinates being in a murderer’s slaughter-room, she becomes an extreme aquaphobe.  She takes it so far, she’ll only take fluids through an IV and refuses to go out in the rain.  After missing her best friend’s wedding, she is taken to a mock-séance that turns all too real for its participants.

The séance shows promise, with candles suddenly blowing out and some spooky framing.  There is an interesting film waiting to be made out of that scene.  Unfortunately it ends rather abruptly, opting for a route often travelled as its lead women are picked off one by one.

Taking its cues from supernatural slasher flicks of the ‘80s, Madison and her friends launch an investigation into the spectre’s origins.  This takes up the majority of the runtime between kills, but lacks any suspense or intrigue due to a clumsy opening expository scene.  Why show us the monster’s (who looks like and speaks like an undead grunge singer) origin story at the outset if nearly three-quarter’s of the film is about exposing it?  An episode of Scooby Doo would have less predictability.  Mylett is a personable enough actress, though it’s difficult to care.  Madison’s own history becomes entwined with the killer’s legacy, but it hardly amounts to anything as we never see her, or her friends, outside of the plot.  What do these people do for money?  There’s talk of a wedding, but the husband is never glimpsed.

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All of this adds up to a strangely unfinished film.  So unfinished that the film’s major flaw is glaring and embarrassing.  Archibald takes his time setting up laws of physics early on in the film.  The killer can materialize out of water – be it in drops, vomited or even in a bottle.   But it’s not long before water begins inexplicably appearing in set-pieces where it doesn’t belong.  An elaborate, flooding elevator scene would in another film be frightening, but a lack of set up or understanding as to how the water got there in the first place leaves the audience stymied.  And since drowning is the killer’s primary M.O., the complete lack of violence will leave the more die hard horror fans even less satisfied.

Archibald’s camerawork alternates from typical grimy horror to strangely beautiful.  A repeated haunting exterior shot of a suburban street would have proven effective were it not followed by the same darkened basement so commonplace in such films.

That said, there are some interesting ideas worth a better movie.  The script should be lauded for treating phobias realistically, as the first act deliberately shows just how irrational fear can be.

So water permeates.  It’s soluble and organic and impossible to avoid for a lifetime.  That’s how water can potentially be scary.  Unfortunately, The Drownsman is not.

-Kenny Hedges

Please visit the official website of the Fantasia International Film Festival.