He Comes from the Swamp


Slasher films can be organized basically any way you can think of. Classic slashers versus modern torture porn. Pre-Scream vs. post-Scream. U.S. works and the likes of Italian Giallo. But another way of looking at these films is how the movies handle their killer. Is the killer human? Do they have motivations we can relate to? Slasher films can either have their killer be flesh and blood, and by that measure allow the killer to be someone that can, yes, be killed, or they can be a supernatural force that can never truly be stopped. Finding the way out of one of those films is finding a way to stop the killer long enough that the heroine (almost always a heroine) can escape while the killer bides their time, healing, until their next appearance in the next film.

A supernatural killer has rules, of course, but they are basically unstoppable. Hatchet, from 2006, underlines this point within the first introduction of the killer. Here, the supernatural force, that of poltergeist in human form Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), is shot and seemingly killed by one of our human protagonists. And yet, in the very next scene, Crowley is back, already working to tear apart another victim (as he does repeatedly in the film), brushing off the gunshot wound like it’s nothing to speak of. How do you stop a force like that? How do you even survive with that kind of creature after you? Well, it should come as no surprise that, for most of the characters in a slasher film, surviving isn’t on the agenda.

Hatchet opens with the introduction of Ben (Joel Moore), a college student down in New Orleans with his friends during Mardi Gras in an attempt to take his mind off his break up with his (now) ex-girlfriend. However, all the festivities just leave Ben feeling more down, so while his buddies go off to drink, Ben wanders away to find a haunted boat tour he’d heard about. His friend, Marcus (Deon Richmond), goes with, just to keep his bud company, and the two end up finding perhaps one of the lamest haunted boat tours ever offered in New Orleans.

They, along with the other passengers – Patrika Darbo as Shannon Permatteo, Richard Riehle as Jim Permatteo, Joleigh Fioreavanti as Jenna, Mercedes McNab as Misty, Joel Murray as Doug Shapiro, and Tamara Feldman as Marybeth Dunston – end up taking the ride through the haunted swamps of Victor Crowley. However when their boat gets stuck their tour guide, Shawn (Parry Shen), has to admit that he doesn’t know where they are or how to get back. That’s when Marybeth tells the crew that Crowley is out there, he’s real, and he wants to kill them all, so they have to run if they want to escape. But escape will be hard as Crowley steadily stalks them all and picks them off, one by one, until there’s only a couple of people left. Can they escape or will they all be victims of the curse of Victor Crowley?

Hatchet is the first in what would eventually be a four-film series (with another one perhaps on the way). But without those movies to detail their further plots, a viewer has to take the first film on its own and, in that regard, Hatchet isn’t perfect. It commits the cardinal sin of any slasher film (and spoilers for an eighteen year old movie): it kills all its characters. When we watch a slasher we accept that most of the characters, whether we like them or not, will die. But a slasher story is a gauntlet, meant to take a character (or two, or three) and hone them. By working their way through this long and elaborate death trap, watching people they know get picked off one by one, they are supposed to find a reward at the end: they get to live. If you kill everyone in the film you violate that agreement and waste the time of everyone involved.

Now, I have to note here that, knowing what comes later, this film doesn’t technically kill everyone. One person does survive, but that’s only illustrated in the later movies. This film ends like it kills everyone so we have to accept that as the ending. Just because later films decide to retcon this ending away doesn’t change how this film works. It goes for the cheap ending of, “the killer was too powerful. Rocks fall, all die,” and that sucks. It takes what was a decent little slasher and ruins the delivery, failing in the execution right when it needed to nail it. If you can’t accept the ending of a film it doesn’t matter how good the previous hour and a half might have been. A bad ending ruins it all.

Up until that ending, though, the film actually was decent. The film gets a lot right, spending much of its first two acts establishing the characters and letting us into this world. We learn enough details about everyone on the boat ride that we care about them as more than stock characters there for dying. We certain characters bite the dust you actually feel bad because you expected them to make it out of the movie. “He was practically a protagonist,” you think, watching yet another person get ripped apart. Making you care about the characters makes the deaths have weight selling the slasher story.

And the deaths are solid. They’re visceral and over the top, yes, with plenty of characters getting literally ripped apart. The film employs practical effects making every stab, rip, and tear feel more real. Sure, there’s a cheesy, heightened quality to some of the effects, as you always get with this kind of practical puppetry and makeup, but that works within the silly, heightened scale of the world. Because of that you buy into the idea that a man can literally rip apart another human being and, yes, you enjoy the gore. It all goes hand in hand.

One thing I will say, and this is a minor note, is that for a film called “Hatchet” there are barely any deaths via actual hatchet. The weapon in question plays into the backstory for the villain, but only a little, and then it’s largely cast aside so Crowley can kill his victims in just about every other way he can think of: with his hands, with a shovel, with the other end of the shovel, etc. It’s all very silly, carrying the same weight as the various deaths in a Friday the 13thOne of the most famous Slasher film franchises, the Friday the 13th series saw multiple twists and turn before finally settling on the formula everyone knows and loves: Jason Voorhees killing campers 'round Camp Crystal Lake. film, and I enjoyed that. Just, if you’re going to call your film “Hatchet”, maybe use the hatchet in question a little more. Just a little, to sell it.

While we’re comparing Hatchet to Friday the 13th, of which the earlier movies certainly inspire this later series of films, I don’t also want to note that the Jason films at least clearly established ways to kill the fiend off. Jason died in the water, so most times, when he was put down, it was because he was somehow shoved back into the water. Hatchet doesn’t give that same kind of weakness to Crowley. It never, in fact, gives him any kind of weakness, with the killer seemingly drawing his power simply from proximity to where he died. The kids all try to escape, to get away, so that he can’t have the power to kill them but, as I noted, even that fails. Hatchet doesn’t really seem to have rules for the killer, weakening the overall storytelling. And, because of that, the film goes for the cheap out, everybody dies ending since there’s no clearly defined way to wrap everything up. It sucks.

I did enjoy Hatchet for most of its runtime. It’s a solid, throw-back style slasher that really does work. It’s just that ending that threw me off. Knowing there are sequels does help, but frankly the film should never have been put in the position of having to use sequels to explain away its own bad ending. It needed to do it right, the first time, so that the sequels could be their own thing. I do still recommend it for fans of classic slashers, but just know you’ll probably want to watch the sequels just to get an ending that doesn’t leave you disappointed.