Shakespeare was right! If you want to have some goofy, gratuitous genre fun, Judge Bill Gibron suggests you "get thee to (this) nunnery" right away. You'll be glad you did.
Sometimes, evil lurks where you least expect it.
When a horror film has a hard time coming up with a formidable foe, leave it to the Devil to embody macabre's back-up bad guy. Usually associated with possession, plague, or any number of fallen angel angles, the mangoat can be counted on to play evil to God's good game face almost any day of the week—especially when religion is involved. Like an eons-old spat between ex-lovers, Jehovah and Beelzebub are still smarting from that whole banishment from Heaven hokum, and with Hell's sinking property values, a little brimstone backlash is expected.
What this has to do with Italian filmmaker Mariano Baino and his magnificent, maddening movie Dark Waters is a mystery for a series of theological scholars to unravel. Apparently an allegory about wickedness's desire to dispense with grace, and the queer convent of nuns willing to support their own side in the spiritual slaughter, we get creepy foreign freaks, a malevolent batch of Christ brides, an amulet with a frightening façade, and a visiting Londoner with a bad case of expositional amnesia. Put them all together and you've got a picturesque pile of paganism that either announces Baino as a worthy successor to Argento and Fulci, or some fudged up shite that makes surrealism and stream of consciousness appear positively lucid. Either way, fright fans are in for a cloister full of creeps when this clan of precarious penguins starts poppin'.
Facts of the Case
After her father's death, Elizabeth decides to visit the convent where she was born. Daddy used to support the island enclave financially, and she's curious to find out why. After an event-filled voyage including a baneful bus ride and a dangerous trip across a windswept sea, our heroine arrives at the isolated nunnery and immediately meets Sara, her genial and good natured guide. Disturbed that her friend Teresa is not around to greet her, Elizabeth immediately confronts the Mother Superior about the goings on in this so-called sanctuary. What she hears is not comforting.
Stripped of all her material possessions, Elizabeth is forced to live among the nuns as she explores the grounds. She discovers a weird painter kept in a pit, a series of catacombs leading to a locked door, and begins to suspect that these supposedly pious women are up to no good. Soon, people start dying and Elizabeth begins to remember her past. Apparently, her mother didn't expire in childbirth, like she was told. And she's not an only child…she has a sister as well. Who the sibling is—and more importantly, who their mother is—becomes the prime mystery haunting Elizabeth. The answers, unfortunately, may be as murky as the dangerous Dark Waters surrounding this far-off fortress.
Like an H.P Lovecraft obsessed Dario Argento making Christian cautionary tales, Dark Waters practically defies description. This sometimes silly, sometimes sublime exercise in tone and setting can be a profoundly frustrating cinematic experience. On the one hand, director Mariano Baino is such a visual stud that he can't compose a boring shot. Even the standard pictorial cliché—an individual waking up screaming after a bad dream—is given a fresh coat of creepiness by the way this fascinating filmmaker fleshes out his ideas. Thanks to his optical excellence, we will follow this film anywhere it goes, even when it decides to travel into areas arcane and aggravating. Like most Mediterranean moviemakers, Baino uses his country of origins rampant Catholicism, as well as the entire history of religious-based horror films, to forge a kind deceptive demon creature feature. We are supposed to see the nuns as evil, our heroine as wholesome, her helper as honest, and the town as your typical isolated and idiosyncratic burg. That Baino eventually twists and turns each one of these elements is not as novel as what he does with them once the switch is made. It is only after all the reveals, when all the hints are explained and the secrets are exposed that we can judge Dark Waters' success. Until then, it's just an entertainment guessing game.
Baino is not about to beat his audience over the head with obvious monster movie moves. His is a subtler, shiftier narrative ideal. He believes in details and depth, using his backdrop and his art direction to provide clues as to his corrupt considerations. At the beginning of the movie, in a very effective prologue, we see nuns scattered along a hillside, crosses burning in the twilight sky. We see a strange talisman, a stone sphere that seems to send anyone who looks at it into fits of self-destructive fear. Evil Dead-like cameras crawl along the ground, suggesting a presence prepared to kill to preserve its secret. Suddenly, blood is spilled and a body lies motionless along the always-agitated seashore. Weird rituals follow and self-flagellation adds the final freakish touch. Baino handles this—and Elizabeth's eventual arrival with its simultaneous murder—so well that we give him lots of leeway as Dark Waters plays out. Unfortunately, he needs every bit of that well-earned goodwill. By about the one-hour mark, we grow weary of all the insinuation. After another 15 minutes or so, we are ready for some much-needed answers. All the bloody organs, local color, and late night nun attacks can't dissuade us from the feeling that this whole enterprise is about to be much ado about nothing…new.
We're almost right. As Dark Waters introduces the frequently mentioned "beast" and its Hellspawn happenstance, we wonder how this gifted director will keep us from feeling a kind of Satanic buyer's remorse. After all, bringing Moloch into the mix just begs for trouble. God has always battled Hades' halfwits, said struggle the foundation for hundreds of hopeless horror films. We hope that Baino has something more to offer than a Rosemary's Baby redux. Thankfully, his ending plays directly into his Lovecraftian longings, resulting in something that is strange, shocking, sickening, slipshod, and ultimately satisfying. Thanks in part to the menacing mood he creates throughout, with equal help from his perfectly serviceable cast, we get a kind of Clive Barker bait and switch, a wrap up that relies on as many leaps in logic as it needs ample amounts of audience disbelief suspension. Granted, given the specious reasoning present in the rest of the plot, the final few minutes feel right on the mark. If we miss the point, it is practically our own fault. Dark Waters asks nothing more of us than to simply go along with its inflated sense of the sinister, to believe in the power of religion to right wrongs and control iniquity. If he fidgets with such sentiments along the way, we are just supposed to sit back and enjoy the jerryrigging.
In fact, Dark Waters may be the first completely "sensory" horror film. It functions outside of a level of clear cognizance. Instead, we are supposed to drink in the sumptuous and scary visuals, to taste the fear lumping in our lead's throat, to shiver at the sounds reverberating through the ancient stone corridors of the convent and feel the clammy cold of the ever-present sea spray on the back of our hair-hackled neck. This is not a movie made to muster intelligence or sensibility. No, Baino's "in your face" ideals are designed to throw you off course, to create confusion inside your reasonableness and prepare you for the substrata of scares he's milking. While it's not as gory as some fright fans would like (we do witness a rather nasty immolation, however) and relies on make-up and monster effects that seem dated in our CGI fed sensibility, there is still so much style, so much fear finesse and macabre majesty in what Baino is attempting that he earns a pass before we can even begin to gag on his goofiness. As a matter of fact, this filmmaker must be some kind of cinematic psychic. He appears to anticipate each and every issue we will have with his film, and then offer up some supplemental piece of boo business that gets us over the horror hump.
Still, the parts don't necessarily add up to a successful whole. Unlike his Italian brethren, Baino can't completely gather up all his loose strings and make them collect into a filmic fresco. We still have plenty of questions here—like how exactly did Dad play his part in his daughters' conception? Who is the mom in the picture? What is the name that the old lady keeps calling Elizabeth? Are those human or animal guts the local mortician is fondling and feeding to the birds? If the painter is really an oracle, why does he appear to be a good half step behind the events he eventually paints? And how does the talisman work, and why? While some may argue that a series of answers would only normalize Dark Waters' considered novelty, scary movies need a modicum of sense to truly remain within the genre mandates. Without it, we end up with a gimmick that, over time, tends to fade from even the most fanatical memory. Dark Waters definitely deserves attention. It marches to its own demented drummer and even plays with the basics of percussion along the way. If you expect a cohesive terror time, you'll be sadly mistaken. If you go with the gruesome flow, you just might find yourself fixated on what Baino has to offer. It truly is a unique spook show.
Kudos to NoShame Films and their devotion to giving previously unknown foreign films a deserving distribution. The amazing anamorphic widescreen image preserves Baino's beautiful 1.85:1 compositions expertly. The colors are perfect, the contrasts between light and dark exceptional and the overall look is artistically and aesthetically pleasing. As for the aural elements at work here, a clean and crisp Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is provided in the film's original language, English. The spatial aspects of the sound scenarios are excellent, and the movie has an amazing sonic ambience thanks to the pleasing auditory offering.
But where this release really shines is in the added content department. NoShame fleshes out their Limited Edition Two DVD Collection with a selection of Baino's short films (all on Disc Two), a commentary, an engaging Making-Of documentary, and a selection of deleted scenes (all on Disc One). Beginning with the trimmed bits, we realize that anything left on the cutting room floor deserved to be there. Next, the cast and crew turn up to discuss the hardships of making Dark Waters. Thanks to an influx of Russian money, the movie was shot in the Ukraine, and the pitfalls that befell the production—everything from a lack of edible food to a regular, workable filming schedule is discussed at length. Baino is the most genial, laughing at situations that, in retrospect, probably drove him to drink. Good thing then that craft services—what little of it there was—was overloaded with crates of vodka. The final feature on Disc One is a wonderful commentary featuring Baino and NoShame honcho Michele De Angelis. Oddly enough, De Angelis has a thicker accent than our delighted director, yet both men deliver an insightful discussion that's loaded with details and hilarious anecdotes.
Disc Two features three short films made by Baino, two before and one after Dark Waters. Dream Car is a 16-minute story about one boy's obsession with owning a vehicle. He hopes it will help him pull the birds. Unfortunately, it will only lead him to despair, and possibly death. Made many years ago, this first film is still a great deal of fun. Next up is the surreal and satisfying Caruncula. Focusing on a mother/daughter combo who likes their meat on the decidedly human side, this clever juxtaposition of archetypes and tricks is 20 minutes of goofy, gory goodness. Finally, we are treated to Baino's latest effort, a direct to digital "fairy tale" entitled Never Ever After. Dealing with one young girl and her debilitating body issues, the totally telegraphed ending cannot distract us from one insane sci-fi shocker. From the casting to the set design, these 13 minutes of madness are incredibly memorable. Each short is accompanied by another classic Baino/De Angelis commentary track, and Never even has a wonderful "behind the scenes" featurette to enjoy. Together with a package presentation that contains a 50 page production booklet, a stone recreation of Dark Waters' infamous amulet, and a big ass box that will have collector's clamoring about shelf space, this is clearly one of the year's most comprehensive DVD experiences. It is not to be missed.
True, in the long lineage of Italian fright filmmakers, Mariano Baino has yet to enter the realistic realm of genre giants like Argento, Fulci, Bava, or even Soavi. Ranking right below this quartet of scary movie mavericks, his is a career worth watching. While some may dismiss Dark Waters as yet another nunsploitation effort gone gonzo, or a religious riot that's more humorous than horrifying, to dismiss Baino outright is to take all his talent for granted. Like South African Richard Stanley, whose movies often contain visuals of epic expressiveness, Baino is a master of the cinematic canvas. Ridicule his mise-en-scène or fault his frequently flawed script, but this is one visually rich effort. If for nothing else than the evocative expression of picturesque pain and scenic suffering, Dark Waters deserves respect. It may not hit all the horror highlights, and look a little overdone in a realm routinely given over to the low budget and obvious, but there is something enigmatic about this mess of a movie that cannot be ignored. Besides, it's another installment in the ongoing feud between Satan and his cherubic chums. No fear fan is excused from witnessing such a spry spiritual battle. It's part of what makes macabre so memorable…and amusing.
Not guilty! Dark Waters and its daring director deserves praise for trying to be different in a genre that more or less mandates the motion picture parameters to employ.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: NoShame Films
• Audio Commentary with director Mariano Baino and NoShame Films' Michele De Angelis
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