There is a warm spot deep in this cold heart of mine for those ‘lost’ films, the ones you hear constant whispers about, the films forever relegated to scratchy VHS bootlegs. But every once in a while the DVD gods smile down upon our meager existence and grace us with one of these forgotten gems. Case in point, Mariano Baino’s atmospheric nun-fest, Dark Waters (AKA Dead Waters) has been given the Frankenstein treatment – a resurrected life! And thank the DVD gods it did; Dark Waters is a slick and beautiful throwback to the grungy European exploitation films of the 70’s. Think an updated version of Rollin, Franco, Argento or Fulci; or more accurately, a sublime, tasty stew of all the above.
It was filmed under the bizarre conditions of the mid-90’s Ukraine, where a comparatively lax cinematic culture made for a tough ride for the tightly-scheduled European crew. This definitely shows in the final product – for better and for worse, as it turns out. The cast and locations make for some truly strange and eerie scenes and the catacombs where they film all the underground caverns is priceless. However, the tight budget and filming problems make for a rather spotty story and some questionable creature effects. Dark Waters, however, makes up for its lack of substance with some of the most incredible style seen in ages.
The story centers on Elizabeth, whose father has recently passed away. Seems the old man had been sending payments for years to an isolated and bizarre nunnery, and Elizabeth sets out to determine if she should continue this funding. What she encounters is an island with a malicious order of nuns who hide a terrible evil, and whose ties to Elizabeth are closer than she could ever imagine.
For its very low-budget, Baino and his crew have concocted a virtual masterpiece of beautiful visuals and stunning set-pieces. The comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft as well as the directors mentioned earlier are unmistakable. Taking a page from Argento, the interiors are lit with lush blues and reds and there is a particular death scene which mirrors an infamous murder sequence from Tenebre. There is a grimy appeal to the photography and locations, ala Fulci; from the monolithic nunnery to the dark, dirty caverns below; with special mention to the sets lit with (literally) thousands of candles. It’s incredibly gorgeous, but one wonders about the safety on set when the flames were going full tilt.
Baino populates his film with numerous unique and exciting characters and this is truly one of the strengths of the movie. While it is slow-going, the story never plods and the visuals more than make up for the few minor scenes of plot exposition. Also as mentioned, the story suffers greatly, especially from a lack of finish. The first two acts are wonderfully executed, heightening our involvement in the mystery, but the finale lacks the ‘oomph’ which we are anticipating. It seems the tight shooting schedule and dwindling budget caught up with the crew and the story arc sort of falls off the graph and short of expectations. But, please do not let this hinder your choice to view the film, as the ending is actually more than ample. (As another note, you might want to watch the film with English subtitles, as the accents of some of the Ukrainian actors are extremely hard to understand).
I confess to not having seen this film before its DVD release, but have heard a few positive things here and there over the years. However, this is definitely one low-budget gem that is truly worth the effort put into finding it and releasing it for general consumption. The sumptuous visuals and wonderful cast of characters make for a satisfying watch, despite its obvious pitfalls. Hell, it’s a blend of Lovecraft and nunsploitation, what’s not to love? Highly recommended for those fans of moody, Euro-shock horror and anyone else looking for something different to rent on a random Friday night.