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DARK WATERS

Iíve never made peace with this film.  I admire it, certainly, as itís an extremely skilled, literate mood piece that (for once) isnít a parody, tribute or outright rip-off of something else.  For all that, though, Iím just not sure DARK WATERS is all that good. 

The Package 
     DARK WATERS (1994) was the first feature by the Italian filmmaker Mariano Baino, who at the time was known for his short films, in particular the acclaimed 20-minute giallo pastiche CARUNCULA (1990).  DARK WATERS was shot in war-torn Ukraine, and despite favorable reception on the festival circuit (it won prestigious awards at Montrealís Fantasia and Romeís Fantafestival) received extremely spotty distribution.  Prior to 2006 its only exposure in the US was via VHS bootlegs and a poorly mastered full-screen DVD release. 
     Now, though, the film is available on a lovingly prepared DVD courtesy of No Shame Films.  Of the two versions No Shame has put out, the limited edition box set, which includes a ceramic reproduction of an amulet that figures in the film and a separate disc containing Bainoís short films, is the obvious pick.  Iím not sure DARK WATERS is entirely worthy of such effort (I can think of at least a couple dozen more deserving titles), but itís a must-own for fans.

The Story
     Elizabeth, a pretty Londoner, is on her way to a forbidding convent located on a secluded island.  She grew up there, though all her memories of the place have been erased, and now finds that her deceased father has decreed portions of his fortune be sent to the convent each month.  Determined to discover the reason for these mysterious payments, Elizabeth sets out for the island.  Things go wrong from the start of her journey, on a bus ride in the company of a bunch of weirdoes and a boat trip through a storm-ridden sea.  Upon reaching the convent she finds its inhabitants, nuns all, to be vague and incommunicative, and so elects to stay and investigate on her own.
     But thereís weirdness afoot.  Elizabeth peruses an ancient manuscript with cryptic references to a creature arising from a ďbottomless pitĒ and causing all who see it to go blind.  She also spies several nuns carrying what looks like a dead body through the catacombs beneath the convent, and is nearly killed by a renegade nun in the attic.  There Elizabeth spies a strange yet strangely familiar painting. 
     Memories come flooding back; Elizabeth comes to realize that sheís the offspring of a hideous monstrosity sheís now supposed to reawaken from its confinement in the ocean beneath the convent.  The nuns, whose behavior has appeared malevolent, are actually doing their best to keep the creature at bay, with the help of periodic cash injections from Elizabethís father.  Elizabeth tries to escape, but is ultimately powerless to alter her destiny. 

The Direction 
     No one can fault Mariano Bainoís skill or ambition here.  His visuals are layered and atmospheric, and his Lovecraftian storyline is related in an arrestingly impressionistic manner.  The art direction, accomplished on and around forbidding Ukranian locations, is painstaking and eye-catching, and the film is all the more striking when one considers the ultra-low budget and perilous shooting conditions. 
     But it also has an overly studied, artificial look.  Cinematographer Alex Howe overdoes his colorful lighting to the point of excessiveness; itís a bit like the garish photography of a Dario Argento flick, although in Argentoís films the tone and content are usually outlandish enough to justify the overwrought visuals.  Not here, though. 
     Thereís also the problem of the constantly building narrative that peaks with a frankly cheesy climax involving a tacky monster we barely get a glimpse of.  Itís virtually the only point in the film where the sparseness of the budget is made evident, but unfortunately itís the very part for which Baino and his collaborators really should have saved their money! 


Vital Statistics 

DARK WATERS
No Shame Films 

Director: Mariano Baino
Producer: Victor Zuev
Screenplay: Mariano Baino, Andrew Bark
Cinematography: Alex Howe
Editing: Mariano Baino, Rick Littler
Cast: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Maria Rapinist, Valeri Bassel, Mariya Capnist, Anna Rose Phipps, Pavel Sokolov
 


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