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Issue 02, Volume 01

HURTS SO GOOD: Enjoyment of the Worst

by Monet Eliastam

I find great pleasure in watching a particularly bad horror film: fake blood, high-pitched screams, and elaborate plots combine to form my perfect trifecta. After learning about the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Scary Movie Series, which ran over Halloween weekend and screened a multitude of worthy titles, I set my sights on Mariano Baino’s low-budget Dark Waters. The film follows Elizabeth, a young British girl, as she travels to a secluded island to inspect the monastery that her recently deceased father had secretly funded for years. As she gains entry into the exclusive world of the nuns, Elizabeth learns the women are hiding a dark secret which may be linked to her own hazy childhood memories. After watching the trailer online, I set off ready to enjoy a Friday night filled with creepy nuns and bloody caskets: horror at its worst.

While I don’t expect to be truly scared by these kinds of so-bad-they’re-good films, Dark Waters fails to even develop the base amount of tension expected from any film. Instead of gradually introducing the audience to the monastery’s dark purpose, Baino too willingly announces the danger around every corner — and considering the multitude of corners, the suspense wears thin. Echoing the techniques of Italian horror master Dario Argento, the identity of the evil force is kept secret through a hand-held POV shot which creeps behind unsuspecting victims. Unfortunately, Baino is less adept than Argento at executing the movement, utilizing it too frequently and for too long. Similarly, the almost constant jarring music often begins prematurely, overtly heralding the next assailant instead of creating intrigue and tension.

Adding to the film’s hindered suspense is a lack of any narrative nuance: from the opening scene, where a priest is speared onto a giant crucifix, the film has nowhere to go: it is fully situated within the world of horror. Baino chooses to begin with Elizabeth already on her way to the island; we learn all backstory through later dialogue and flashbacks. But by skipping over the chance to characterize Elizabeth within a “pre-horror” scenario, Baino loses a valuable opportunity to add depth to the audience’s experience. Later scenes of Elizabeth struggling to fight off murderous nuns would be more powerful (and funny) if the audience could compare them with previous ones of her living peacefully in London or dealing with her father’s death at home. What saves Dark Waters from drowning in its own complexities are the few moments when Baino, striking a balance between imagery and ambiguity, sparks the curiosity of the audience (doesn’t answer his own questions and makes the audience curious). The film is haunted by images of beaches filled with dead fish and catacombs flickering in the light of a thousand candles. While the majority of the film depends heavily on expository dialogue, the intense visuality of these scenes momentarily gives the audience a visceral experience. This observable intensity allows the viewer to identify with Elizabeth, despite her lackluster characterization and the film’s crippled plot. As Elizabeth winds her way through the candle-lit tunnels, the audience shares the thrill of each tentative step that brings her and them closer to the sacred inner chamber. Later, in a moment of madness, when she finds herself kneeling in dead fish, ferociously biting into one raw, the audience and Elizabeth herself are equally horrified at her actions.

Despite being somewhat overshadowed by confusing plot twists and flashbacks, Dark Waters still delivers an entertaining experience for those who love horrible horror. You can’t help but shiver with delight at the hunched over mailman-cum-butcher as he hacks into a severed leg (could it be human?), barely wiping the blood from his hands before giving Elizabeth her letters. There is even a certain amount of pleasure to be found in Baino’s low budget and the resulting lack of special effects. When Elizabeth straddles a nun, hitting her head into the floor until she is unconscious, the result is comical, her stunted movements not communicating anywhere near the amount of force needed to create the puddle of blood that accumulates. Yet these moments are appealing in a way that is hard to explain. Are we entertained by the director’s failure to scare? Do we enjoy being able to see through the facade of horror to the mechanics behind it all? Are we sadistically watching others’ pain? Though we may not understand our own satisfaction, Dark Waters certainly has the potential to please those of us looking to enjoy some of the worst horror has to offer.

Directed by Mariano Baino; written by Mariano Baino and Andrew M. Bark; produced by Victor Zuev; cinematography by Alex Howe; edited by Mariano Baino and Rick Littler. Running Time: 94 min. With: Louise Salter (Elizabeth), Venera Simmons (Sarah), Maria Kapnist (Mother Superior), Lubov Snegur (Mother Superior’s Assistant), Alvina Skarga (Old Blind Woman).


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