Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dark Waters (1994), Lovecraftian Terror with Italian Horror Flair

I’m a sucker for a good atmospheric Lovecraftian horror film, and I’m even more thrilled when it happens to be an Italian horror film, because then you know it’s going to be overflowing with unique style and excess. Filmed in the Ukraine, director Mariano Baino’s “DARK WATERS” is a stellar example of the nightmarish gem that can result when Lovecraft and Italian horror are fused as one. Just like in Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece “THE BEYOND”, those grandiose and gory gross out death scenes are on full display, and the film contains characters whose eyes have gone white from being blinded after witnessing the threatening evil presence in all of its supernatural glory. There’s even a little bit of Dario Argento’s “SUSPIRIA” thrown in, with an unsuspecting main character arriving to stay at an architecture that is ruled by a threatening, all female, presence and a couple other moments characteristic of “SUSPIRIA, that fans will no doubt notice. As far as I could observe, the H.P. Lovecraft influence is mostly “THE CALL OF CTHULHU” with an ending climax that shares a resemblance to a plot device from “THE DUNWICH HORROR”. I didn’t notice the resemblance to “THE DUNWICH HORROR” the first time I viewed this film, but if you think about it, you’ll see it. I don’t want to give it away, so I’ll hint at it. It involves 2 offspring from some otherworldly creature, with one resembling the parent more than the other! 
Starting out strong with style and mysticism, the first part of the movie is presented in a dialogue-free fashion, amongst a sea side monastery, dark threatening waters, creepy religious imagery, and candle lit subterranean caverns. In fact, the beginning of the film happens to be the only part of the story that consists of an attack from actual dark waters, with the film’s monster not even coming from the sea, which is opposite of what I was led to believe given the movie’s title. Not a big deal at all though, because just like a movie called "TROLL 2" that has no Trolls in it, this movie is still great and is deserving of a new found popularity. That way, Mariano Baino can inflict many more films on us like he said he would do in the director’s introduction to the film (the release from No Shame).

During the films dialogue-free prelude, we get an uneasy feeling that there is something very peculiar and possibly sinister about this convent ruled by fanatical nuns. Also, the significance of a beast amulet is made apparent when one nun is startled by its presence and runs off with it, clutching the idol as if it contains a terror no one should have the misfortune to behold. This amulet further sets the Lovecraftian tone of the film, with its decorations of a sculpted Cthulhu like face and hieroglyphics not fashioned by any human hand. After being pursued by a formless entity that comes after her in an “EVIL DEAD” like traveling camera shot, the nun and amulet both fall off a seaside cliff to their dooms. The broken pieces of the idol are collected by the fanatical sisters of the convent, and a good deal of trouble is made to separate the pieces from each other in Gothic holding cases so they can be hidden away in different locations. It’s as if something really bad were to happen if this amulet were to be reassembled. We the viewers of course can’t wait to see what craziness will ensue if this beast idol were to ever be made whole again. 

After the prelude, the film cuts some years later to a travelling bus, where we meet the main character Elizabeth (Louise Salter) travelling to this same monastery in a region all together cut off from the rest of the world. Unnerving feelings start to arise regarding Elizabeth’s destination from the look and behavior of the other passengers who seem to have come from the middle-ages, and a letter written from a friend staying at the monastery, alerting Elizabeth of the harsh living conditions to expect at the convent. Also, a window side view of dark blasphemous rituals of nuns in procession with burning crosses doesn’t help much either. We are given more reason to fear for Elizabeth’s arrival to the convent from a scene of Elizabeth’s friend at the monastery being brutally murdered and stabbed to death after discovering a hidden passage behind a wall and viewing an eerie ritual of self-punishment, burning crosses, and frantic praying from the fanatical followers of this dark unorthodox faith.  
When Elizabeth comes to a port town, she relentlessly haggles with a sailor to take her to the island where the monastery is, to no avail. Even though the sailing conditions are in no way ideal, Elizabeth seems to have an obsession with reaching the convent that night because she is determined to keep her appointment. Could it be that Elizabeth is just a hard working girl with a good work ethic, or is something wholly not of this world drawing her there? In any case, she comes across a threatening looking sailor who doesn’t fear death and offers to take her to the island that night if she pays a good deal of money up front. This sailor has an amusing companion that hobbles around on all fours like some kind of animal and reminded me a lot of Gollum from “THE LORD OF THE RINGS”. Needless to say, Elisabeth does arrive at the convent that night amidst heavy wind and rain, in an atmospheric sequence made even more nightmarish with threatening sounding music. The stage is now set for this dark adventure.

It wants our precious, it does

The strict convent rules at the monastery make it a lot more like a prison, because Elisabeth has all of her things and clothes confiscated from her, only leaving her with what looks like a potato sack to wear that the lower members of the order have to adorn. Curiously, Elisabeth seems to have a friend she knows from before named Sara that lives a cloistered life in the convent. This place seems to exist in a realm outside of space and time, because Elisabeth explains to Sara the modern convenience of electricity in London where she is from, and Sara seems pretty intrigued, like she’s never even heard of electricity.

I for one rather enjoyed the isolated and claustrophobic setting of the convent, with its dark, foreboding, and dreadful, torch and candlelit passageways. At this point, some viewers might be slightly annoyed that the past relationship between Sara and Elisabeth is not made clear, but in order to obtain maximum enjoyment you really should just go with it and embrace it as a mystery element that spices up the story. 
So the reason Elisabeth came all the way out to the asscrack of the world to personally visit this convent is made clearer when she meets with the mother superior, who appears visibly aged beyond that of any human life expectancy, with blind pale white eyes, and a croaking voice that is translated more clearly by an assistant. Elisabeth explains that she has inherited a living will from her father and couldn’t help noticing that a large number of regular payments were consistently made to the convent, and she would like to know what specifically warrants such generous donations and why should she continue making the payments. It is explained to Elisabeth that the order serves a “divine purpose”, and her father understood that purpose and with time, so will she.

Rather than explain to her what that purpose is, they give her access to a dusty old forbidden library, filled with old rotting books that look as if they haven’t been touched for centuries. I guess they felt it wouldn’t be very convincing to just straight up tell her, “we need the money so we can continue living out here on this godforsaken island in order to keep an unnamable beast sealed away so it can never escape and destroy humanity” and felt it would probably be best if she just surround herself with literature that will explain it better. I don’t know what it is about creepy library settings, but I really do go for them. My favorite being the one in Dario Argento’s “INFERNO”. 
Elisabeth is surprisingly patient with them and very diligently examines the forbidden literature. She is vaguely hinted about an evil threatening beast, after reading text that deliciously emulates Lovecraft’s writing. It isn’t made obvious at this point if she’s convinced of the convent’s “divine purpose”, but things just progressively turn bad for Elisabeth as she stays on at the convent. She is plagued by nightmares of something noisy and beastly sealed behind a wooden door, witnesses an unwholesome and surely unholy procession of the nuns carrying a dead corpse wrapped in sheets, and is nearly murdered when a genocidal nun tries to assassinate her with a garrote when she starts to “know too much”. She even gets a real bad feeling about her friend Sara, when she seemingly tricks Elisabeth into missing the boat, causing her to be stuck on the island in fear for her life.

With a resolve to never return to the convent, Elisabeth wanders a small aggregation of beach side huts, where she encounters a human butchering mail carrier, who only gives her helpful information if she pays up, and a blind old woman who even without her sight recognizes Elisabeth right away, claiming she has finally returned as if Elisabeth was born on the island or something. Even though Elizabeth doesn’t think much about it at first, she still inquires about the old woman to the creepy butcher, who, upon payment, shows her an old photo of this elder woman with a daughter that Elisabeth immediately recognizes as her mother. You see, Elisabeth is one of those characters that cannot remember the first seven years of her life and doesn’t recall ever meeting her deceased mother, so it’s not surprising when she confronts the old lady in her hut demanding answers. One interesting visual in this hut is the many embroideries of the beast hung up all over the wall that were sewn by the blind woman, as if the sight of the monstrous thing was so terrifying it resulted in it being scarred in her memory.

Exploring the hut, Elisabeth comes across childhood photos of herself and her mother. As if all of this information regarding her origin isn’t already too much for Elisabeth, one of the convent nuns on assassin duty comes to visit and without knocking, tosses in a flaming crucifix that sets the whole hut on fire, including the frail old lady who at this point has no doubt been identified as Elisabeth’s Grandmother! I actually felt a wave of sadness during this scene, as the only memories left of Elizabeth’s childhood and her own Grandmother, she just met for the first time, tragically go down in flames, while a voice over of a child crying augments the drama. What follows is a powerful and disturbing scene that nearly drew a tear to the eye of this hardened horror film lover.

Elisabeth does return to the convent after this but not necessarily for reasons you would expect. The remaining story draws ever nearer to its climax as Elisabeth starts to slowly realize who and what she is and what it is that has really drawn her to this island. During the latter part of the movie, there is this constant beast groaning and child whimpering sound effect that gives off an impression of the character’s, as well as the story’s, own descent into madness. Also, thrown into the mix are a blind oracle painter that paints events as they happen and an endearing if not impressive latex monster, which still looks cool despite its short comings. 
I haven’t given away everything about this movie, and even if I did it wouldn’t matter because “Dark Waters” is a visual treat with a number of great moments of sensationalism, something that no plot spoiler could ever ruin. I think it’s really just a great find, and I hope there are a lot of others out there who feel the same way.


  1. that looks seriously creepy, plus i'm scared of nuns

  2. Indeed! These are some of the scariest nuns I've ever seen.