Color, 1994, 93m. / Directed by Mariano Baino / Starring Louise Salter, Mariya Kapnist, Venera Simmons / NoShame (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

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. Few people got a chance to see it in theaters, with Americans instead seeing it go direct to video courtesy of York (as Dead Waters) in one of the lousiest presentations ever inflicted on the viewing public. Whatever one's opinions about the film itself, however, it can finally be truly judged on its own merits courtesy of NoShame's special edition, which presents it in a viewable form for the first time on home video.

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; however, 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.

As mentioned above, NoShame's DVD is a completely different experience from past video editions of this film; the colors are now bold and striking, the widescreen compositions have finally been restored, and the detail and black levels bring out textures and visual details completely obscured before. A lovely job from start to finish. 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 assembly. 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 film is available as a general-release version with the single disc described above, but collectors may want 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 screeplay 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. All told, this admirable set is certainly worthy of a spot on your shelf; just be prepared for it take up a lot of room!

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