One look at the poster for writer/director Chad Archibald's The Drownsman, and we know what he's going for: a throwback to the supernatural slasher franchises of the late '70s and early '80s. It's a noble aspiration, and one that feels like it could be successful in the opening minutes of The Drownsman (after a quick cold open that establishes The Drownsman's origin story, a mistake so early in the film). It's too bad the rest of the movie never fulfills the promise of The Drownsman's opening scenes.
After the title card, we open on a group of girls at a party by a lake. Encouraging, right? The tone here is on point for those early slasher flicks, and lead Michelle Mylett has just the right look as Madison: effortlessly cool prettiness, tattered jeans, high-top sneakers. After some chit-chat (charmingly stilted in the grand slasher tradition) about the upcoming wedding of her friend Hannah (Caroline Korycki), Madison slips on a beer bottle on the pier and falls into the lake. She's immediately transported in her mind to the dark, leaky dungeon of The Drownsman, a monster who looks like a black metal Swamp Thing. He very nearly does her in before she wakes on the pier, coughing and surrounded by her friends. We cut to a year later to find Madison terrified of all water; she takes her fluids intravenously and misses Hannah's wedding because it's raining outside. The girls are fed up with Madison's phobia, and decide to stage an intervention via an amateur medium named Cathryn (Clare Bastable).
I hoped here that the remainder of The Drownsman was going to take place over the course of one night, in Hannah's house during this ill-advised seance. As the girls force Madison into the bathroom to find a tub filled with water and surrounded by candles, The Drownsman looked as if it were headed in a really tight, satisfying direction. Unfortunately, five minutes later, the girls are out the door and The Drownsman spirals outward for another hour and fifteen minutes of increasingly complex mythology and logic-defying turns.
It's best, I know, to not get hung up on logic in any movie, and particularly not in a supernatural slasher. But the problem arises when The Drownsman doesn't follow its own, in-universe rules. After Cathryn summons the killer out of his watery grave from which he could reach only Madison, he's soon able to menace any of the girls if water is nearby. But then water starts appearing in unlikely places, like an elevator. How does that work? And while we're asking questions: how is Madison's hair so shiny if she hasn't bathed in a year? And more damningly: if the events of the film take place after the night of Hannah's wedding, where's her husband in all of this? What do any of these girls do for a living? What do they do when they're not chasing The Drownsman?
Logic concerns are secondary to the real flaw here: knowing nothing about these women, seeing no other part of their lives, makes it impossible for us to care about them. We see Nancy Thompson and Laurie Strode at school; we see Alice Hardy making preparations at camp. All we ever see of Madison, other than those too-brief minutes at the party, is as the would-be victim of The Drownsman. Again, none of this would matter if the film took place over one night, in one location, but once it starts sprawling out over the town and a period of several days, we can't help but notice the sparseness of the characters and the narrative.
The Drownsman feels like both the first and the fourth entry in a slasher series. It opens as the first - the party, the seance - but we're soon saddled with a silly mythology tying Madison more deeply into the history of The Drownsman, and it feels like the sort of infuriating ret-con that pops up in later entries, humanizing the killer in a way that no one wanted.
It's clear that Archibald loves Carpenter and Craven - in fact, the mental hospital in town is called "C.G. Craven Psychiatric Facility" - and I like that The Drownsman has roots in those films that informed so many horror lovers over the past 36 years. But the film doesn't know its own strengths, and soon abandons its best parts for something much weaker.