From the grand gothic atmosphere and supernatural themes of the mid-late 60s to the psychological perversions, explicit sexuality, and hyper violence of the 70s (and, still later, the gut-munching viscera of the 80's zombie and cannibal fiascos), the Italian horror genre has long been celebrated for marrying the internal nightmares of its characters with bold, taboo-breaking imagery. Externalizing psychological dimensions of terror and desire, death and decadence, with surreal settings, fetishistic eroticism, and atmospheric fervor, Italian cinema specializes in baroque visual excesses that often mirror (and lend cinematic power /greater emotional insight to) such universal themes as our fear of the unknown, the Faustian pact, fragmented consciousness, and dementia. Petering out in the early 90s, save for the occasional triumph of Soavi or Argento, the Italian genre had lost not only a majority of its financial support but, sadly, much of its own innovation, mood, and energy. Coming at a time when the industry was dying not only in Italy but throughout much of Europe, Dark Waters was a fresh breath of air, announcing the presence of a bold new talent whose visual flare and emotional intensity provoked both terror and awe. While not precisely an Italian production, produced with money from various countries, Dark Waters was undeniably entrenched in the atmosphere and visual extremity of that nation's approach to the horrific and fantastic. As a continuation of a great cinematic tradition, and as a lyrical scream of nightmare in its own right, this film is a macabre masterpiece that has finally seen its day.

Telling an emotionally involving, startling (if rather fragmented) story with believable characters and evocative atmosphere, Mariano Baino's modern faerie tale for adults was inspired by Mario Bava's lighting techniques and Dario Argento's violent, stylistic set-pieces, both of which Baino made his own in a directorial voice that is perhaps grittier than either if admittedly less polished. Director Baino combines the visual intensity of Italian dark fantasy with a devotion to plot that many genre films lack, favoring style over substance. It is to Baino's credit that he paints moods with both visuals and intellectual contexts, crafting in Dark Waters a fable as concerned with the terrors of self discovery as with the supernatural. Thanks to No Shame's sterling transfer, the film can now be appreciated as it was meant to be seen. This should help it receive the appreciation it deserves for bridging the gap between the Gothic sentiment of the genre's roots with the nihilism of modernity.

After the death of her father, Elizabeth, a likeable if na�ve London woman, travels to a desolate island to investigate her legacy, primarily what motivated her father to insist in his will that a vast sum of money be annually paid to the nuns of a rustic convent. Given little information from the secretive, apprehensive sisterhood, and feeling harried by the blind Mother Superior, Elizabeth enlists the aid of a seemingly helpful novice to guide her through the dark layers of scandal, violence, and occult that lurk beneath the convent's rotting exterior. Meanwhile she also learns of her own terrifying role in a primal contest for power -- a pagan influence capable of ruining her very soul. As the plot spirals towards horrid revelations, Elizabeth's search for truth becomes more than an idealistic search, it becomes necessary for her -- and perhaps the worlds -- survival. Facing the terrifying tenants of the unknown, Elizabeth unearths just as many secrets about herself as the small island's inhabitants. The convent in question serves as a prison for an ancient sea demon, kept ensnared only so long as the pieces of a magical amulet are kept separated. If joined, the amulet will allow unspeakable evil to penetrate our world, breaking down the barriers between realms. The monster itself is equal parts Greek mythological minotaur and various interpretations of Lovecraft's Cthulthu Mythos, and is suitably impressive. The story itself is an inventive tapestry of horror underlined by sensitive characterizations and a beautifully grotesque atmosphere. The central narrative is structured in a piece-meal fashion, as fragmented as the decrepit stone amulet at the core of the mystery. Ambiguity and the suggestion of still greater cosmic nightmares drowns the story in an enigmatic ambience that stays with you. Mood is the central concern here -- a mood that lives and breaths with no less energy than its flesh and blood characters.

Mariano Baino's macabre masterwork of repressed secrets and demonic manifestation is an ode to Lovecraft's cosmic approach to crafting universal pathos, suggesting far more than what is simply shown. The intellectually mature story seethes with philosophic subtext, rooted in the enigmatic mysteries of both the external universe and character's internal natures. While more graphic and less complex than a Lovecraft text proper, Baino's emphasis on the unknown, and humankind's pathetic inability to face the secret nature of the universe (hidden beneath the deceiving 'lie' of exterior appearances), achieves similar power to that author's preoccupation with raw, unnameable phenomena. Thoughtful in a genre where logic and continuity are often thrown out the window for emphasis on fast pacing and spectacular FX, Dark Waters is nothing less than a modern folk tale, emitting some of that primal genre's rustic simplicity and cosmic resonance. Baino's careful direction breathes life into both physical horror and the ethereal. He does this with a poet's instinct and a tacticians sense of pace. The script and characters, not to mention the general tone of the story, mirror Lovecraft's universal approach towards a limitless infinity, a world of bleak amorality where awesome powers give man little if any thought. While never static, the screenplay does allow characters and individual scenes to play out to their best advantage. In other words, Baino isn't in such a hurry to get where he's going that he sacrifices emotional involvement.

Filmed on location in Ukraine, employing the actual legend-haunted Odessa catacombs for authenticity, Dark Waters, while on the surface a supernatural fable, is, in fact, more aligned with our modern emotionless angst and lack of faith. His characters are alone in a universe so very complex, so very alien, and so very outside our range of values/knowledge that they cannot even begin to comprehend its true scope. All they can do is fear it. This isn't so much horror, then, which suggests a simple physical threat but, more impressively, a terror film, where awe accompanies dread in the face of the unknown. Madness, when and if it comes, is a blessing. Baino conveys these dangerous emotions with precision, crafting a cinematic canvas of dark wonder. The film, at last, can be appreciated for its exciting surface story and chilling visuals or studied for the textual intricacies of its many culturally challenging themes. Bravo!

Of course the film wouldn't be as impressive (or effective) if not for the quality of No Shame's presentation. Paying great attention to the technological aspects of the transfer, No Shame's respectful treatment of Dark Waters is obvious. Disorientating sounds and visuals enhance the fundamental weirdness of the story. The restoration was supervised by Banio himself, and the resulting print invites the eye to notice elements of background and lighting that were bypassed in the film's few early incarnations. Complete and uncut, the film is featured in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphic ally enhanced. Picture quality is nothing short of superb, boasting strong, sure colors (which, as you'll see, play a strong part in weaving its spell of madness) and deep levels of black. Skin tones are realistically hued, and a tone of phantasmagoria reigns throughout. Audio is likewise sterling, keeping distinct the luscious chaos of the effects and the sumptuous, story telling musical score. Available in English Dolby Digital with optional English and Italian Subtitles, sound is evenly distributed. The track is free from any distortion or muffling effects. The music itself proves an emotionally rich accompaniment to the on-screen action, lending a hand in inspiring a grand sense of near operatic drama.

Extras are the category where No Shame rarely fumbles, and Dark Waters is no exception. While the box set with additional short films and commentary, a gift box, and stone amulet are recommended for true fanatics of the film, the one disc itself sports some exhaustive, impressive supplementary material. First off is the Audio Commentary track with writer/director Mariano Baino. Moderated by NoShame Films producer Michele De Angelis, this track is informative and involving, somewhere between an informed lecture on film craft (without the snobbism) and a personable, intimate chat with a man every bit as interesting as his stories. Along the way we hear of the financial and emotional strains of the shoot (not to mention choice physical hardships), the terror of financial pressures, shooting in the Ukraine, working with both established and new actors/actresses, and juicy tid-bits regarding disagreements. Most importantly is Baino's persistence, passion, and energy -- evident in his conversational style. A true fan of horrific cinema, he is also a craftsman and poet, intuitively understanding the psychological machinery of fear. One cannot help but admire him for his skill and moxy, while regretting that he hasn't yet completed further feature films. Perhaps this DVD will stroke some producer's interest? We can hope! This commentary is kept lively by a moderator who obviously knows his stuff. The "Director's Introduction" immediately proceeds the film, which is an intimate gesture much appreciated, setting the mood and revealing Baino's earnestness. "Bits and Bites" follows the commentary, including several minutes of scenes that, even outside of context, lend ambience and insights into the story. "Deep Into Dark Waters" is the most impressive addition, featuring an intensive behind-the-scenes look at the making of Dark Waters, with Baino and company describing the rigorous filming process, its several hurtles, and the love of genre that moved them forward. Inspirational, the featurette is also an instructive warning of the economical and physical toils of the industry. Comprised of special behind-the-scenes peaks at the talent, the piece includes interviews with Baino, Louise Salter, Steve Brooke Smith, Rick Littler, and Nigel Dali. Further extras include a "Silent Blooper's Reel" and a "Photo and Artwork Gallery," which shares photographs from Baino's personal collection. A comprehensive, loving package of a remarkably nightmarish film, Dark Waters is one of the definitive releases of the season.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by No Shame
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review