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Thursday, April 13, 2017
Hamlet once told Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery", but I don't think Shakespeare had the one in DARK WATERS (1993) in mind. In fact, within the rather small "nunneries gone bad" sub-genre of horror this is a prime contender for the most gone-bad nunnery of all time.
Which is why we worry that young Elizabeth (Louise Salter, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE) is on her way there because she just inherited her late father's estate and one of the clauses in his will is that this remote island convent will continue receiving a large cash payment every month, and she wants to find out why.
What she finds out instead is that this place is about as medieval as it gets (much of it seems hewn out of the craggy, wave-battered rock itself), lit only by flaming torches and candles and populated by as motley a bunch of nuns as ever stalked the creepy stone corridors of a shadow-strewn castle. Basically, this place makes the dance academy in SUSPIRIA look like Knott's Berry Farm.
Even Elizabeth's bus ride and boat crossing on her way to the island are populated by frightening and grotesque characters, as though she's entered a nightmare world in which everything is abnormal, discomforting, and often downright disturbing.
This includes the convent's Mother Superior, who's a real doozy of a character. Ancient and blank-eyed, she communicates only in a blood-curdling croaking noise that's interpreted by her equally creepy assistant. Just about the only comfort Elizabeth receives comes from a naive young nun named Sarah (Venera Simmons), who seems eager to make friends and help Elizabeth navigate her stay there during the long wait for the island's only boat to return to the mainland.
The movie opens with a spectacular flood sequence (filmed with an entire set built in a water tank and then demolished by two trip tanks) which takes place about 20 years previously and gives us some clues to what's going on. These include a large stone amulet that is smashed, the pieces retrieved and safely stored away by the nuns for whatever nefarious purpose this may later serve.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Sarah begin to play amateur detective within those labyrinthian sets (many of which appear to be found locations), finding their way into hidden subterranean dungeons that contain even more terrifying freaks and other hellish perils.
And to make the deliriously Lovecraftian atmosphere complete, we're shown glimpses of a big locked door in the innermost recesses of the castle, behind which lurks the dreaded "thing in the closet"...a thing which is obviously very scary and very angry, and is trying very hard to get out.
Elsewhere on the island, Elizabeth encounters another creepy old blind woman who seems to recognize her. We see several disturbing flashbacks to when she lived on the island with her father until the age of seven, giving her the unwelcome feeling that she's somehow connected to whatever is going on there. Everything that happens to her is heavily foreboding and oppressive.
As a film, DARK WATERS appears rather rough-hewn at first, but gradually reveals itself to be sharply, almost exquisitely directed by Mariano Baino (his only feature film) and photographed by Alex Howe, and is brimming with consistently bizarre and unsettling imagery which is very imaginatively conceived and staged.
The art design alone is a constant source of interest, with the entire film having a similar feel to the work of Dario Argento in both look and atmosphere (the story itself is reminiscent of SUSPIRIA, only freakier), as well as reminding one of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST with its stately-paced and intricately-staged set pieces. Director Baino stretches the suspense tautly with a consistent, almost mischievous "wait for it..." style that makes us anticipate every shock and horror with bated breath.
There's also an unreal quality to the film that's disorienting--at times the narrative is barely even linear, with a dream-logic progression of events that the viewer need not question too closely but simply be carried along with, ever deeper into the nightmare, never knowing what new horror lurks around each corner.
Performances are fine, with Louise Salter as Elizabeth being a likable heroine. Filmed mostly on location in the Ukraine, this Italian-Russian-UK production benefits greatly from its ideal locations. There's a robust musical score by Igor Clark and some extremely jarring sound design that adds much to the film's nerve-wracking effect.
The Blu-ray from Severin Films is in 1080p full HD resolution with English mono sound and English subtitles. A bountiful bonus menu includes audio commentary by director Baino, a director's intro, deleted scenes, a blooper reel, several of Baino's early short films, and the featurettes "Lovecraft Made Me Do It", "Let There Be Water", "Controlling the Uncontrollable", and "Deep Into the Dark Waters."
As if everything that went before weren't enough, DARK WATERS ends with a startling plot twist and a horrific climax that may leave you reeling. It's definitely one of the most impressively made and effective horror films I've seen since the late 70s.
Buy it at Amazon.com:
Release date: April 25, 2017