Dark Waters Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
When a young Englishwoman attempts to discover her mysterious connection to a remote island convent, she will unlock an unholy communion of torment, blasphemy, and graphic demonic depravity. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Perverted, possessed, and/or evil nun stories have likely been around as long as Catholic women have donned the habit and pledged themselves to God. In the film world, naughty nuns had existed since the silent era, when Benjamin Christensen’s occult pseudo-documentary Häxan (1922) portrayed a series of sinful sister antics, but it wasn’t until Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (itself also based on a true story, 1971) shocked censors and titillated international audiences that the concept of Nunsploitation took off. Spurred by the equally “beloved” Nazisploitation genre, ‘70s Nunsploitation was usually an extension of the Women in Prison (WIP) genre, including sadistic/masochistic Padres in place of sadistic/masochistic prison wardens and innocent prisoners/nuns driven to lesbianism.
Mariano Baino’s Dark Waters was released in 1994 – a time when the Italian horror industry was lumbering out of its golden era and into complete collapse. It was also the same year that Michele Soavi released Cemetery Man (Italian: Dellamorte Dellamore), which would go on to become the region’s last genre hurrah. Baino’s film ended up being overshadowed by Cemetery Man’s good press and the perceived quality of most of the period’s Italian STV output. As a result, most of us missed out on this loving ode to that golden age. Baino was working from a modest budget and under trying circumstances (he and writer Andy Bark apparently had a much larger and even more American-friendly production in mind, but had to dial back on their plans, due to budget constraints and the challenges of filming in the Ukraine), but he also clearly and deliberately designed the film’s arthouse aesthetic, rather than stumbling onto it like Bruno Mattei and other bargain basement exploitationeers.
Dark Waters doesn’t quite deliver on the introductory sequence’s delectable promise of enigmatic, dialogue-free vignettes, but Baino still manages to deliver scene after scene of purely visual storytelling. As he delves into surrealistic violence and moody seaside landscapes, he draws upon traditions from Fulci, Bava, and even Soavi (it would fit nicely alongside The Church, 1989), but specifically recalls the point-of-view shots, extensive explorations of labyrinthine catacomb sets, and obsession with rain seen throughout Dario Argento’s supernatural thrillers, specifically Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). At the same time, Dark Waters is a bit more concerned with plot and character development than the typical Argento witch story. The specific references to the oceanic terrors of H.P. Lovecraft and fact that the central character is an outsider to the convent actually make it difficult to include the film under the greater Nunsploitation banner (given the occult mysteries plaguing the convent, one could draw obvious parallels to Suspiria’s evil ballet academy). Perhaps Catholicsploitation would be the better genre designation?
As I mentioned, Dark Waters is a reasonably obscure title, but that didn’t stop it from being released on special edition DVD by NoShame Films and limited edition DVD from Ecstasy in France. There were also pan & scan DVDs released in both regions, though every version seems to be OOP at this point. This Blu-ray debut was reportedly remastered from the original 35mm negative and is certainly an upgrade over what I’ve seen from DVD versions. That said, something clearly went wrong during the scanning process, because this is a particularly noisy transfer. Severin tends to deal with the aforementioned CRT/telecine issues that plague so many Italian releases more gracefully than most studios (they’ve been slowly correcting many of Media Blasters’ mistakes the last year or so), so I’m a little taken aback by the obviousness of the issue. The occasional signs of edge enhancement (almost exclusively during the brightest daylight shots) made me think this was an encoding issue, but this vertically strafing noise doesn’t look like a compression artifact, because it doesn’t follow the patterns of image texture or gradation shapes. And it’s a bummer, because, otherwise, the transfer is a nice representation of the independently-produced production. With the exception of those somewhat over-sharpened edges, details are tight, dynamic range is strong, and the warm color quality is consistent.
The box art claims that Dark Waters is presented in mono sound, but that is a printing error, because the disc actually features an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Unlike the Italian horror films of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, it was shot with at least some on-set sound and in English. I’m sure there was an Italian dub, but it is not included here, nor does it need to be. The sound effects have a canned quality that doesn’t necessarily detract from the surrealistic tone, but does make for a slightly thinner mix, at least when compared to pricier productions from the era. The effects are all quite clean, despite the occasional tinny bits and hissy pieces of dialogue. Igor Clark’s dramatic synth-based score adds considerable production value and volume to the track. There are some warping effects throughout the music and I’m not sure if these were designed this way or if there was some damage to the original tracks.
Commentary with writer/director Mariano Baino – NoShame’s Michele De Angelis moderates this very informative commentary with Baino, who is brimming with so many behind-the-scenes anecdotes that he doesn’t really need any guidance.
Lovecraft Made Me Do It (9:51, HD) – Baino discusses his many literary influences, centering on the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Let There Be Water (6:44, HD) – The writer/director recalls the challenges of the opening sequence, where water floods the church, including hastily drawn technical plans and the original multi-camera rushes (taken from a VHS source).
Controlling the Uncontrollable (5:10, HD) – A quick featurette on Baino’s intricate creature illustrations.
Deep Into the Dark Waters (50:27, SD) – An extensive retrospective documentary that includes production illustrations, storyboards, behind-the-scenes photos, and interviews with Baino, camera operator Steve Brooke Smith, script supervisor/editor Rick Littler, and star Louise Salter.
Director Intro (2:36, SD)
Deleted scene and outtake reel (7:14, HD)
Silent blooper reel with commentary by Baino (2:52, HD)
The Short Films of Mariano Baino (with optional commentary):
Dream Car (16:16, SD) – A lonely stalker finds himself trapped in a haunted car where he is unseen by passers by and eventually dies when the vehicle is crushed in a junkyard facility.
Caruncula (21:26, HD) – A young woman with a dark secret is menaced by a sadistic killer after a night at the movies.
Never Ever After (13:47, HD) – A woman suffering from body dysmorphic disorder agrees to an experimental surgical procedure in this surrealistic dark comedy.
Making of Never Ever After (14:04)
”The Face and the Body" music video (4:30)
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.