Color, 1993, 92m.
Directed by Mariano Baino
Starring Louise Salter, Mariya Kapnist, Venera Simmons
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), NoShame (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Released during the closing days of the Italian horror boom, Dark Waters seemed like a jinxed project from the outset. While the entire Italian film industry was gradually shifting its attention to watered-down "spooky" TV movies, first-time director Mariano Baino had already garnered praise for his stylish short film, "Caruncula," and was being praised as the Generation X successor to Bava and Argento. The comparison continued to stick, even though Dark Waters is absolutely nothing like previous Italian films; in fact, if you took off the credits, you'd be hard-pressed to peg its nationality at all, thanks to the multinational talent and locales.
In the puzzling prologue, an isolated religious establishment on a stormy island is beset by problems originating from a stone medallion. Nuns trudge through the landscape carrying fiery crosses, a young girl is repeatedly stabbed until the water runs red with her blood, and a priest trapped in an underground flood meets the wrong end of a broken shaft of wood. Flash forward twenty years later, as young Elizabeth (Salter) arrives at the aforementioned island to discover why her father has been sending payments to the nuns ever since her mother's premature death. The Mother Superior (Kapnist) and her charges prove less than helpful, so Elizabeth takes to the library to find out the horrible secrets which have left her with nightmarish flashbacks involving a long lost sister. Meanwhile the occasional malicious nun tries to shove her out a window or stab her, leaving Elizabeth more determined than ever to uncover the diabolical secret which ties her to this wicked order.
From the opening moments, Dark Waters tries to overwhelm the viewer with rich, suffocating visuals. The impressive opening half hour is almost entirely devoid of dialogue, leaving the viewer to piece everything together with a series of visual clues equally inspired by Jodorowsky, The Name of the Rose and Michael Mann, whose The Keep is aped right down to the droning, Tangerine Dream-inspired synth score. However, the delicate balance goes off-kilter in the midsection as the pace slows to a crawl and the actors seem to lose their way mid-scene with regularity; fortunately it all gets back on track again eventually for the weird, Lovecraftian finale with a little dash of The Sentinel tossed in for good measure. Gore fans will find a few scattered thrills, such as an extended entrail pulling that seems to have wandered in from another film.
Very few people had a chance to see this filmin theaters, with Americans instead seeing it go direct to video in the late '90s courtesy of York Video (as Dead Waters) in one of the lousiest presentations ever inflicted on the viewing public. NoShame's 2005 DVD is a completely different experience from past video editions of this film; the colors are now rich and striking, the widescreen compositions have finally been restored, and the detail and black levels bring out textures and visual details completely obscured before. Contrary to the outside box, there's no 5.1 remix included here; however, the standard stereo version sounds terrific and easily outclasses the wretched York disc's audio, which inexplicably channeled the dialogue to the rear channels. Optional English (or Italian) subtitles are provided, and they come in handy during some of the more densely-mixed scenes. The feature is preceded by a long video intro by a candle-wielding Baino, who seems enthused about the film and promises to make a second feature one of these days. Baino then returns for an audio commentary with NoShame's Michele De Angelis, covering all of the various shooting and cast details with an emphasis on creating the film's unique visual look (perhaps in turn an inspiration to Stuart Gordon, whose underrated Dagon would play well with this film). The shoot was quite dramatic and almost never reached completion, thanks to thefts and near-fatal disasters at every turn. Also included are some chatty deleted scenes that add a bit of character detail but were wisely cut from the final director's cut (though they were present in some of the early tape versions floating around). Also included on the disc are "Deep into Dark Waters," a new hour-long documentary about the making of the film featuring interviews with Baino, Salter, producer Nigel Dali, cinematographer Steve Brooke Smith, and editor Rick Littler. Though it tends to repeat itself a number of times, the making-of features some interesting details and lots of backstage info (coupled with plenty of on-location photos). Also included is an outtake reel (with more Baino commentary) and a hefty still gallery.
The NoShame edition was available as a general-release version with the single disc described above, but collectors with a lot of shelf space could opt to spring for the more lavish two-disc set, which comes packed in a huge (video game size) box with a stone replica of the medallion seen in the film. (Intact, that is, not broken.) The second disc represents something of a DVD calling card for the director, profiling his shorter work including a much-needed good transfer of the 20-minute "Caruncula." Packed with unsettling imagery involving dolls, barbed wire and other fetishistic detail, it's a very strong piece of work profiling a particularly disturbed young woman's cannibalistic tendencies and is largely responsible for established Baino's reputation. Baino's first real short, "Dream Car," is also included and profiles a man's unhealthy obsession with a new automobile; it's an interesting first attempt and should interest completists. The much more recent shot-on-video short, "Never Ever After," showcases Baino's more recent style; though it would have obviously benefited from being shot on film instead, the visuals are still strong throughout this story of a woman whose quest for physical improvement takes her into very dark territory. Quirky and stylized to the extreme, this looks a whole lot more like the fevered imaginings of, say, Stephen Sayadian rather than your usual Italian horror director. A 20-minute featurette goes behind the scenes of this last short, and a DVD-Rom screenplay is included as well. Baino provides quick and informative commentaries for each short. Also included is Baino's Cecily Fay music video for "The Face and the Body" (nice, but again crippled by being shot on standard video), another photo gallery for the shorts, and, as if the box didn't weigh enough(!), a huge insert booklet containing liner notes, a Baino bio, production sketches and storyboards.
After that release the film fell into obscurity for a while until Severin Films revived it in 2017 for separate Blu-ray and DVD releases that offer the best-looking incarnation of the film, which is still speaking relatively given its video history and the challenges presented by its stylized look that often turned to mud in standard definition. Deep blacks, eye-popping reds and browns, and improved detail all make for a stronger viewing experience transferred from the original negative, though the frequently dark lighting and funky film stock also look even more inconsistent with the heightened resolution. (You can see comparison frame grabs from the DVD by clicking here or here.) The bit rate is consistently beefy but the film often has a coarse, chunky texture to it that's less evident in motion than in frame grabs but definitely odd looking; given the film's threadbare technical capacity with the Ukraine film shoot, this may be about as good as it gets. Like the DVD, the image is slightly windowboxed. Oddly the English stereo audio is only presented in lossly Dolby Digital 2.0 while the commentary is ported over in LPCM, which seems a bit backwards; optional English subtitles are included.
Everything is carried over from the NoShame release in terms of video extras ("Deep into Dark Waters," the intro, deleted scenes, bloopers, and short films and music video with optional commentary, taken from the usual interlaced SD masters), with some new goodies added as well. In the featurette "Lovecraft Made Me Do It" (9 mins. 51 secs.), Baino talks about discovering the world of Lovecraftian horror as a voracious reader and distilling it into his cinema, while "Let There Be Water" (6 mins. 44 secs.) finds him chatting about a more spectacular, unreleased sequence for the climax involving a giant wave bursting into the chapel, some of which was filmed and is presented here for the first time. Finally, "Controlling the Uncontrollable" (5 mins. 10 secs.) goes into Baino's process of building worlds through drawings and books to maintain a sense of control over media and the elements he regards as, well, uncontrollable. It's also nice to have all of the extras -- and some new ones -- on a single disc that you can actually fit onto a shelf.
Updated review on April 10, 2017.