Wednesday, June 8, 2011


1993, Mariano Baino
Starring: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

Winner of a few fantasic film awards, Dark Waters is a strange beast. It has been lauded by some as the most outstanding, original horror film of the last twenty years and criticized by others as being an atmospheric rip-off of Lovecraft and the Italian horror legacy of Argento and Bava. I think the truth lies somewhere between the two of these. For a first feature length film, it is definitely impressive. I think the biggest fault of this film is that the director, Italian born and educated Mariano Baino, had a hand in the screenplay and the editing. While he has the makings of a successful horror director, he is not a very strong scriptwriter or editor. As a result, the film suffers from a weak, frequently transparent script, clumsy editing, and a strong emphasis on atmosphere over story.

With that said, atmosphere is not something that can easily be taught to a fledgling director and Baino has it in spades. Though Dark Waters sometimes strays into a cheesy overemphasis on the creepy, most of the time it gets it right. Between the constantly blurred lines of memory, dream, and reality, the haunting images and bristling soundtrack, Dark Waters is the type of movie to show someone you want to scare the crap out of. Unfortunately, much like Session 9, it is a bit of a one trick pony with visual and atmospheric terrors that don't have much life beyond the first viewing.

Elizabeth, a young English woman, goes back to the medieval, isolated island where she was born. Her recently deceased father warned her to stay away, but her mother died there, and her repressed childhood memories of the place are surfacing. It is full of creepy, wrinkled nuns who are protecting a very ancient, Lovecraftian secret. And because everything I've ever read about this film ruins the surprise, I shall say no more.

Despite my misconceptions, Dark Waters does deserve a viewing or two. The acting is mostly strong, through there are several scenes where the actors seem confused -- and not confused in a "I just saw Cthulhu and now my mind is reeling with otherwordly madness" kind of way. Much of the problem lies in the fact that the mostly British actresses had to contend with an Italian director, an unfriendly Russian location, and an international crew. Though, surprisingly, the budget constrictions were never overly apparent, the stress of multiple language barriers and production challenges show their strain in the film. One of the first films to shoot in the former USSR after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Baino and crew faced numerous challenges. They had to contend with unreliable and unpredictable local workers, destroyed sets, missing props, and film stock sold on the black market. It is amazing that a film with such a rich visual atmosphere got made at all and for that I have to give Baino a lot of credit.

The thick atmosphere of dread, terror, and the unreal is Dark Waters' strongest quality. The scenes that blur dream, memory, and reality are truly beautiful and creepy, though they do borrow a lot from Hellraiser and Suspiria. The plot, in particular, is basically Suspiria in a convent with Lovecraft instead of ballet. The nuns are extremely weird and unsettling. Though they are not evil, they are willing to sacrifice their lives and do what is necessary to protect the world from an ancient evil, which gives them a strangely amoral quality. There is also a divide between the old nuns (completely devoid of character and, usually, dialogue) and the younger, attractive nuns, who are given a bit more screen time. On a final note, I also enjoyed the use of paintings to enrich the plot and atmosphere. Like A Draughtsman's Contract and Deep Red, the paintings also provide clues for the protagonist as she searches for her missing friend, her past, and a way to avoid being gutted like a fish.

The DVD I'm reviewing is the single disc, director's cut released through Ryko. The disc has a smattering of extras, but is otherwise nothing special. The Ryko box set, which is now out of print, is ridiculously over the top for a film that hasn't received much critical attention. It includes the first disc from the director's cut, an extra disc with Baino's short films, and a replica of the stone amulet. The film is also known as Dead Waters and is for some reason easier to find under that title.

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