[review by JA Kerswell]
DROWNING GHOST is a Russian Doll of a movie. This Swedish slasher - the first mainstream homegrown one released to cinemas in that country - swirls around an urban legend born of the murders of three students one hundred years ago at an exclusive school. One student unknowingly finds herself opening a veritable Pandora's Box when she aims to uncover the truth behind the stories. Almost great, the film's methodical pacing for the first hour might put some off, but it ramps up the slasher movie cat and mouse thrills in the last 40 minutes. Although not entirely satisfying, it is worth a look to see how theatrically released slashers survived outside of the United States long after the post-SCREAM (1996) boom had fizzled out domestically.
|Hollywood star Rebecca Ferguson's first role was the bitchy Amanda in Mikael Håfström's DROWNING GHOST.|
The film opens in dramatic fashion, when a student at the school, Rebecka (Sasa Bjurling), climbs to the roof and throws herself to her death in front of horrified students and teachers at end of year celebrations. A year later, her place in her dorm room is taken by Sara (Rebecka Hemse), who now shares with a friend of the dead student Therese (Jenny Ulving). As part of a project, Sara is investigating the urban legend that still haunts the school. What is documented is that three male students were murdered a hundred years ago by a local farmer, who hunted them down with a scythe and then drowned himself in the nearby lake. According to legend his body was never found, but every year he is supposed to return to the school to haunt the corridors, with students only hearing the scrape of his scythe on the stone floor. The more she digs, the more she uncovers links to relatives of both the murdered students and the farmer, as well as more recent wrongdoings. Something that proves unpopular with some and could put her in direct danger.
Two new students arrive at the school Leo (Peter Eggers) and Felix (Jesper Salén), and now with the help of Therese they join forces with Sara to further look into the mysteries within the school walls. Whilst they continue sleuthing, plans are afoot for the annual party to commemorate the murders (a strange tradition!). This year it is to be held in the still standing barn of the killer farmer. Meanwhile, the father of the dead girl escapes from a mental asylum and heads back to the school. Soon both students and staff begin to disappear and the questions remains: is it a ghost or a very real flesh-and-blood killer on the prowl?
|DROWNING GHOST's villain sports a killer disguise. It's just a pity we see so little of it.|
Jamie Blanks' URBAN LEGEND (1998) was very likely an inspiration for DROWNING GHOST. Both films centre around an investigation into an urban legend that may or may not be a MacGuffin, but happens alongside around a series of very real murders. However, the first hour unfurls at a relatively slow pace with the killer (in a striking scarecrow mask) not being seen until around the 58 minute mark. That's not to say it is dull. The investigation by Sara and her friends drives the story forward and held my attention. However, the shift into cat-and-mouse slasher hijinks is almost a little jarring, albeit very welcome. Unusually, the central party is actually a safe haven and, in some ways reminiscent of HALLOWEEN: H20strong> (also 1998), the dark school corridors are the stalking ground for the killer as he or she hunts Sara and her dwindling class mates. It is this end section of the film that rewards with some great suspense set pieces and kept me guessing as to who was behind the murders. The first hour of the movie would have arguably benefited by some of this energy.
As the central figure, Sara's character seems to have been inspired by Alicia Witt's Natalie in URBAN LEGEND. Sara is somewhat aloof and socially awkward (and we find out why later in the film), which makes for an interesting choice but perhaps makes her a little difficult to warm to. On the plus side, the killer's disguise is certainly pretty creepy, but could have done with seeing some more screen time. The film does boast some nice cinematography and a few macabre touches (such as the revelation of what's in the headmistresses' handbag). The ending certainly has more than a nod to FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - although I'm now wondering if it's a legal requirement to have a lake in all Swedish slashers?! The film score by Anders Ehlin and Emilie Lönnerheden is presumably intentionally very reminiscent of John Carpenter's score for HALLOWEEN (1978). However, ultimately, the whirlwind of red herrings and misdirection ultimately collapses under its own weight with the film's climax not having quite the impact it perhaps should.
|Swedish critics bemoaned DROWNING GHOST's similarities to FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN, as if that's a bad thing.|
Actress Rebecca Ferguson plays the school bitch Amanda, in her debut role. Ferguson has since carved out a career in Hollywood with roles such as playing Rose the Hat in the adaptation of Stephen King's DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) as well as a recurring role in the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise. Director Mikael Håfström obviously impressed enough with DROWNING GHOST as he went on to direct high profile North American horror projects such as 1408 (2007) and THE RITE (2011). Håfström had reportedly been trying to get DROWNING GHOST made since the late 1990s. The financial success of his previous film - the Oscar nominated EVIL (2003) - made it a reality. Whilst the film opened strong in its native Sweden, box office takings quickly dropped off and has faded into relative obscurity. Perhaps it would have found a wider audience had it been made and released during the mid-to-late 1990s.
Ultimately, whilst there is a lot of things to recommend DROWNING GHOST it ultimately doesn't gel quite as well as it might do. Still, worth a look for all those interested in what was happening with the subgenre in continental Europe after the post-SCREAM boom had essentially ended in North America.
female: 3 / male: 7
1) Female jumps to her death
2) Male has head smashed against wall/font>
3) Male killed (method unseen)
4) Male decapitated with scythe
5) Female found dead with throat cut
6) Male stabbed in the face
7) Male stabbed and hit with axe
8) Male stabbed with pitchfork
9) Female killed (method unseen)
10) Male impaled on anchor
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