The Beginnings of a Mythology: The Drownsman At The Toronto After Dark 2014

Before the Toronto After Dark’s Werewolf Night, we got to see the emergence of a myth. A myth is less a lie and more of a creation story: a narrative that tells us why things are the way they are. Folktales and urban legends are also made to explain the mysteries and dangers of the world and, sometimes, they come with rhymes and rituals in which the listeners participate. To some cultures, myths are why they have their current reality just as specific individual make their own stories to cope with, or control their environment.

In some ways, horror stories and films — and works similar to such — are extensions of myth-making and ritual. They create the monster or the danger that operates on its own laws: showing you how they can be defeated, or how they are essentially unkillable. This is definitely clear in Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman.

Serial killers can also have their own rituals. They do so in order either justify their murders or out of some kind of warped longing to possess an object. The Drownsman starts off with a story that is pretty much ending. A serial killer drowns his victims in warm water as he embraces them. However, Sebastian Donner — the aforementioned Drownsman — is deceived and drowned himself by his erstwhile victim Isabella.

So here we have the story of a serial killer which, in itself, can be something of a fictional urban myth or legend. But then Archibald does something else. He starts off the story many years after this event. A group of stereotypically depicted young girls in horror, with the feel of being a sorority, are having a party until one of them, a girl named Madison falls, hits her head, falls off a pier and nearly drowns. She begins to have visions of a twisted, green, rot and sea-weed covered man always stalking her. Eventually, she sees him even when she is awake and always in the presence of water.

So now the serial killer becomes a murderous ghost or a monster. This is no new thing. In the Q & A period after the film, Archibald even explains that movies such as Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street inspired elements of The Drownsman. I mean, you can see the myth of a ghost or a monster coming from someone that was once human in many horror films and stories. I mean, look at The Candyman. Or Bloody Mary.

The Drownsman
Reach for me three times.

But the idea of linking the figure of The Drownsman to water has two elements involved.

First, there is the fear factor. Archibald himself stated that he utilized his fear of swimming or, perhaps more accurately, drowning in tandem with the creation of a monster coming for you in the water to create the twisted, green, pale mouldering heart of The Drownsman. Aquaphobia itself is terrifying enough as a debilitating mental illness. Unfortunately, Madison’s close group of friends tend to take neither mental illness or the possibility of the supernatural seriously. It’s actually very frustrating to watch especially when you consider that most of her friends are genuinely concerned for her and their solution is to stage a fake seance and use ultimatums to get her to obey them: for her “own good” of course.

How many awful things throughout history have happened because people have wanted to do something, supposedly, for someone else’s “own good?”

I mean, this film could be horrifying for that in and of itself. You could, if you’d like, even look at it as a metaphor for mental illness and people’s attitudes towards it. Certainly, sufferers can form rituals and patterns from it. But then we have the supernatural element.

Water is a natural medium in some traditional interpretations of magical practise. It can be seen as an intermediary between worlds: between the mundane and the supernatural. Water is life. Some cultures even use it in baptisms to symbolically rebirth their members. Most of the world is made of it and we also come from it. So what happens when someone drowns people, over and again in the same place, the same bath tub, for the same reason time and again. What happens when that person is seeking essentially the origin of life — seeking to reunite himself with his mother’s heartbeat in the womb or, barring that, some other woman’s — and gets drowned in his own ritual tub?

And that others cannot see?
And then only his victims can see him.

Now consider the age-old phrase from Star Trek in which we, as humans, are described as “ugly bags of mostly water.” We evolved from it, we come from wombs, and we need a lot of it to survive because we are made of it. So what happens if a spirit made from the above process is tied by blood to someone else who has a traumatic experience: a shamanic nearly dying and crossing over (or in this case experiencing your last breath) experience? Doesn’t that give them a tie back to the world somehow? Doesn’t also prove that they can play the long-game to get what they truly want?

This spirit knows that patience and persistence pay off.
This spirit knows that patience and persistence pay off.

It’s funny how one of my gripes with this film is also something that fascinates me. Someone at the After Dark asked how Madison cleans herself if she is afraid of water for attracting The Drownsman. Yet I have two questions. First, wouldn’t someone who gets their water intravenously for a year have some serious medical issues and look a lot rougher as a result? And second: if The Drownsman can manifest through water: why can’t he simply manifest through their bodily fluids? I suppose I’m being rather pedantic at this point and maybe he needs pure uncontained water to do so: or this might have been a whole other kind of horror movie.

I also have to admit that The Drownsman going after Madison’s friends after their failed seance really didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me was the fact that I didn’t feel the satisfaction of watching, essentially, some gaslighting shallow people die by the very thing they were mocking. There was an even a neo-pagan, Wiccan, or New Age “Fluffy Bunny” stereotype in the form of Cathryn: whose attempt at a seance and a naive overestimation of her supernatural knowledge leads to an inevitable conclusion.

A crystal on a necklace verses the grand medium of water. I mean, what did you think was going to happen?

Yes, for the most part the girls come across as stereotypical but their love and care for each other is unquestioned. And Madison’s friend Hannah, the one whose marriage Madison misses due to her phobia, actually begins to go along with Madison in her own investigation of The Drownsman’s origins. I even enjoyed watching Madison’s character (played by the actress Michelle Mylett) transform from carefree girl to traumatized victim and all the way to reluctant bad-ass.

Water can also show you your own reflection.
Water can also show you your own reflection.

This was an excellent beginning to a new horror mythology. The problem is: can there be any stories after this one based on how it ends? I am curious to see if anything can be done and I really admire the story that Chad Archibald and his team took the time to craft.

Welcome To The World of Wolves: At The 2014 Toronto After Dark

What are wolves? Are they solitary predators that attack the weak and helpless? Are they a pack of monsters? Or are they a family that merely tries to survive their environment? David Hayter’s Wolves explores these ideas well and, dare I say, quite subversively.

Of course werewolves are subversive in themselves. I mean, think about it: historically they are generally portrayed as human beings with animals inside of them, or at least as something Other that only comes out under a full moon. They are the hunger, the passion, and the violence that are parts of us and the natural world that we keep at bay until such a time as they have to be unleashed. But that, of course, is not the whole story and I will get back to that thought soon, I promise.

Wolves starts off not unlike the 1985 comedy film Teen Wolf. You have a popular student named Cayden, who seems to be a fine specimen of a young man in all ways — a good student and football player — who finds out that there is a beast inside of him. However, there are no kindly secret werewolf parents to guide him or girls attracted to his occasional hairiness. There is fear though: and blood, and horror. The first part of the film is like watching the wolf take off his human skin, his bland human life, or — if you’d like — stepping out of the sheep’s clothing and leaving a great sense of bloodstained shame, and a fear of one’s self.

It’s like watching teenage angst: only with the trappings of tropes shed and murder.

Naturally, Cayden wants to know where he comes from and what he actually is. And then we are introduced to the small town of Lupine Ridge. And David Hayter continues to play with your expectations. He presents you with the first-person narrative voice-over and perspective of an otherwise decent young man who seems to have committed horrible atrocities when he isn’t himself, and then a town of seemingly hostile people in a bar who, well, you expect to act in a certain way.

Frankly, I was surprised that Cayden didn’t get into a physical fight right away in that setting and leave battered and bleeding at the onset. And I haven’t gotten to the character of Connor yet. Connor, for all intents and purposes, pretty much rules Lupine Ridge as something of an Alpha Male. Jason Momoa certainly, in terms of physicality, fits into that role but even he is subversive.

For instance, you might expect Connor to be a thug or a beast that pummels and rips apart anyone in his way off the bat. But you would be wrong. Instead, Connor watches. He watches. He waits and he extends all of his senses out and tries to reason things through his mind even as he subtly intimidates. And for an obvious antagonist who could easily fit the thug mold, Connor has, if you will pardon the pun, a rather biting wit and a sense of honour and personal rules not unlike someone of the Lawful Evil variety. You can see a little bit of Khal Drogo in Momoa’s mien in addition to some StarGate Atlantis Ronen with his sarcasm. He does terrible things but, as you watch the film, you will begin to figure out why. Momoa’s performance as Connor is impressive and entertaining.

Just don't make him angry. You won't like him when he's angry.
Just don’t make him angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

I also like the addition of Stephen McHattie as the farmer John Tollerman. I admit when I first saw him in the bar I didn’t know whether he was a friend or foe. He was once Gabriel: an antagonist in the Beauty and Beast television series. So in a way it’s fitting that he would be dealing with a beast of a different kind in this story and he really grows on you. And you know, you definitely know when you see the enigmatic one-eyed, metal-braced Wild Joe that there is going to be some craziness and there is something strange about that man.

Some dogs don't like to follow orders. Sometimes they just like to do what they want.
Some dogs don’t like to follow orders. Sometimes they just like to do what they want.

I think I would have liked to see more character development with the female character and interest Angelina and some of the other characters. Certainly, at first she does seem very resigned to being “mated with” by Connor as only other “Pureborn” werewolf in town, though — granted — she is only doing so to make sure he doesn’t kill her loved ones, and somehow ends up liking Cayden for some reason: as what seems to be a stereotypical love interest. And while she starts off as far more advanced than Cayden is in knowing who she is, she ends up falling a bit into the powerful female assisting the protagonist trope. Still, I do appreciate the fact that Angelina sets a lot of facts straight for Cayden. She has roamed these woods, metaphorically or otherwise, before and her insights make you begin to doubt some of Cayden’s own perceptions of things: particularly about himself.

I suppose sometimes someone just knows you.
I suppose sometimes someone just knows you.

But I think what really strikes me about this film is how Hayter handles werewolves. He starts us off making us think they are monsters because of their bestial nature. We find out about the differences between Mutts (who are humans affected by the lycanthropic bites of werewolves and are always weaker than real werewolves) and Pureborns (who are born werewolves). You can also observe that even in their human forms there are tells: such as the occasional luminescent glint in their eyes, demonstrations of acute senses as well as extraordinary reflexes and strength. In addition you begin to realize that there is a difference between werewolves that stay as wolves and those that have stayed in their human forms for quite some time.

In addition, Dave and Lou Elsey are masters of makeup. They manage to combine the grace and elegance of a wolf and the symmetry and proportions of the human form.

In other words, Dave and Lou Elsey make these film werewolves  distinct and beautiful.
In other words, Dave and Lou Elsey make these film werewolves distinct and beautiful.

And David Hayter plays with film expectations of the werewolf trope. I like how werewolves apparently come from “back east”:  seemingly a reference to their origins in Eastern European folklore for this film’s purposes. Yet I think my truly favourite scene was when John, his wife, and Cayden are watching television and The Lone Ranger is playing. If you didn’t think Hayter was winking at you before, he definitely does so at that point.

And just wait until you see what comes from that.

This is actually a good point to get into one other aspect of Hayter’s werewolves: mainly their nature. One expectation of the werewolf is that it is their wolf nature that ultimately makes them into monsters. Time and again we horror film watchers see this primal instinct destroy humanity and cause nothing but suffering in its wake.

But what if it isn’t the animal — the wolf — that is the monster?

If you look at ancient werewolf folklore, werewolves were often depicted as humans — sometimes witches and sorcerers —  that took on wolf skins and committed horrible acts of cannibalism and murder. Human minds, twisted by their greed, lust, and madness do horrific things. Wolves are generally more straightforward and attack humans when they are attacked, sick, or starving. Humans kill for power and revenge.

He will make you wish that he just ripped you apart.
He will make you wish that he just ripped you apart.

Think about that when you see the end of the film. Think about what you actually see in the film. And then remember something else. Remember that Wolves, like its lycanthropes, has more than one skin and it doesn’t always show you its entire story … until something goads it into raw and bloody revelation.