Severin Films gives an HD upgrade to the real last gasp of Italian horror with their Blu-ray special edition of DARK WATERS.
After her father dies, Londoner Elizabeth (Louise Salter, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE) discovers that her father has been making annual payments to a mysterious convent on a remote Russian island where she was born and spent the first seven years of her life (of which she remembers nothing). When she does not hear back from her friend Theresa (Anna Rose Phipps) who traveled to the island to do her own investigation, Elizabeth follows only to discover that her friend has apparently left for London to tend to family business. Elizabeth is in turn welcomed as a guest of the convent while she determines why she should keep up her father's payments. Wandering the corridors and catacombs at night she discovers the fresco of an imprisoned blind painter that seems to reveal that Theresa has been murdered and that the nuns – who conduct processions with burning crosses and self-flagellation – have apparently given over their faith to a Lovecraftian god from the bottomless pit. Trapped on the island until the next boat to the mainland, Elizabeth can only confide in novice Sarah (Venera Simmons) who was raised on smuggled Sherlock Holmes novels and is eager to help Elizabeth discover the link between her forgotten past and what plans the nuns have for her.
An Italian/British/Ukrainian co-production, Mariano Baino's DARK WATERS first came to notice via a Fangoria magazine feature article during the shoot which gave a hint of the its troubled production with its underequipped shoot in the wasteland of Odessa while tantalizing readers with images of the film's creature and atmospheric stills but it would be years until fans could see it stateside. Not really a nunsploitation film or even really a Catholic horror film, DARK WATERS does not so much pay homage to the works of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento as much as feel like a kindred spirit. There is a Fulci-esque fascination with blind eyes and, as with Fulci's THE BEYOND, those who behold the forbidden are struck blind while those that are blind are truly capable of seeing like the oracle painter whose fresco depicts acts that have occurred of which he has no knowledge, the blind seamstress who embroiders a likeness of the beast, and the striking personage of the blind, elderly Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist, RUSLAN AND LYUDMILLA) as well as the film's none-too-surprising final reveal. The backstory is an amalgam of Fulci's BEYOND/CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD forbidden tomes and Argento's "Three Mothers" mythos without really intending to be, and the film convent setting and underground explorations almost seem to blend the mise-en-scene of both SUSPIRIA and INFERNO in their quieter moments. Every shot is dripping with candlelit or moonlit atmosphere and backgrounded by omnipresent rain while the daytime beach scenes are sunny but desolate and strewn with dead fish and (later) dead nuns. The climax does not quite live up to the build-up, with the monster far more striking in its carved and painted likenesses than the latex version. While not a complete success, DARK WATERS is nevertheless one of the better latter day Italian horror films (even if its parentage is as mixed as that of its heroine).
Released on VHS in 1997 and DVD by York Entertainment in 2000 as DEAD WATERS in a fullscreen DVD with no menus and a lopsided stereo mix, DARK WATERS was the recipient of a surprising but deserved treatment from short-lived Italian genre specialist label NoShame Films from a director-supervised HD-mastered anamorphic widescreen transfer in a single-disc edition with commentary and an in-depth featurette and a limited two-disc edition with a second disc of Baino's short films and a hefty scale replica of the stone amulet bearing the creature's likeness. The transfer on the NoShame disc represented the film's director's cut (92:06) which added nothing new but trimmed lingering shots and bits of scenes from the ~97 minute original to better effect (the death throes of the woman on the beach late in the film went on for even longer than they do here).
Severin Films' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer of the director's cut features the same windowboxed framing as the NoShame transfer – and may indeed be sourced from the 2006 HD master – minus the edge enhancement while enhancing the brushstrokes of the painter's fresco and the texture of the stone amulet. The image seems brighter but not an aged master may be as responsible as the film's low lighting and fast film stock for the nineties low budget film not exactly popping. Possibly due to an authoring error, the feature audio has been encoded in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 while the commentary (as well as the audio on some of the standard definition extras) has been given an uncompressed LPCM encode. The lossy track gets the job done with the film's dialogue and syntheisized score (which probably always lacked umph during even the most frenetic passages). Optional English SDH subtitles are included, and they do contain one or two transcription errors (revealing that they did not simply use NoShame's subtitle track) with "his old paintings" becoming "feudal paintings."
The audio commentary by director Mariano Baino, moderated by NoShame's Michele de Angelis has been carried over from the earlier disc. Baino reveals that the project came about when Andy Bark, the editor of his short CARUNCULA was in Siberia for the short's screening at a film festival and was approached by Russian producer Victor Zuev. They discuss how the Ukrainian locations as well as the once-prolific Russian film industry afforded them the ability to erect sets and create props that would have been cost-prohibitive elsewhere while also noting the problems with the local crew's lackadaisical schedules including the credited DP who goes nameless due to the frustration he caused, the local production manager selling off their film stock (requiring Zuev to buy more on the black market and the crew to wait for days until it arrived) as well as renting the sets to other productions, and how the production had to move to Kiev and finish in fourteen days sequences they thought they could cover in the original seven week schedule. Baino notes that his own Lovecraftian borrows were not as evident to him during the production and that he tried not to over-storyboard lest he had to make changes on the spot (as he did when the schedule dwindled down). Baino also touches upon the changes he made from the original cut to the current director's cut, and how the lack of access to the separate music, effects, and dialogue tracks precluded him from doing everything he wanted.
New to the Blu-ray are three contemporary interviews with Baino. In "Lovecraft Made Me Do It" (9:51), he discusses how his interests in reading grew from Tom and Jerry comics to Tarzan, from scientific textbooks about animals to science fiction when his parents bought him a copy of the PLANET OF THE APES novel (believing it to be a book about apes), discovering Lovecraft through an Italian edition of "Dreams in the Witch House", horror comics through an anthology of Uncle Creepy comics, and horror movies through Fangoria magazine (the 1983 Dick Smith issue). In "Let There Be Water" (6:44), Baino discusses the sequence in the film where a flood engulfs a church and shows us the rushes from all five cameras used to get the one take only scene (made possible by the existence of a giant pool and tipping water tanks at the Odessa studios). In "Controlling the Uncontrollable" (5:10), Baino discusses his art exhibits including the visualization of books that do not exist.
Ported over from the NoShame disc is the excellent "Deep Into the Dark Waters" featurette (50:27) featuring Baino, actress Salter, camera operator Steve Brooke Smith (GRACIE), co-editor Rick Littler and associate producer Nigel Dali (who provides the narration). Baino recalls writing the script with Bark as a response to the nineties horror trends toward comedy, the hellish twenty-four hour bus trip from Moscow to Odessa during which they were only served Vodka, arriving on location with no sets and no camera available, the hotel accommodations (and their mad bodyguard), and the low-tech special effects. Salter recalls being in drama school when Baino brought the script for auditions, looking forward to the adventure of filming in Russia, and the rest of the shoot in radioactive Chernobyl-adjacent Kiev. Baino and Brooke Smith separately recall how focus puller Peter Field had to train himself to use the Steadicam when it arrived without an operator, how Brooke Smith was responsible for some of the more dangerous camera angles, shooting a lot of the film with Baino until he had to return to England to get married and was replaced by Mark Milsome. Littler reveals that he started as the film's script supervisor and would become co-editor. Baino recalls the protracted post-production period where he was raising money to finish editing the film in London before deciding it was cheaper to do the final editing and mixing back in Moscow (Salter and voice actor Dali also recall how they recorded ADR in a London flat under a blanket).
Also ported over is the director's intro (2:36) to the NoShame disc, the deleted scenes (7:14) which seem to include every single minute snip to the film made (including the aforementioned beach scene) as well as some other brief extensions, and the silent blooper reel with Baino commentary (2:52). The entire contents of the limited edition second DVD short films (with optional audio commentary) is also included. In the U-Matic-lensed "Dream Car" (16:16), a romantically-pining nerd comes upon a flashy red card to impress his crush but finds himself trapped inside. In "Caruncula" (21:26), a serial killer gets more than he bargained for when he stalks a young woman in a movie theater. While some of the mise-en-scene owes to Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, the film's visual style and gel lighting anticipate the more matured style of DARK WATERS. In "Never Ever After" (13:47), a girl worried about aging submits to an unusual beauty treatment that "takes the weight off of [her] shoulders." The most recent of his shorts at the time of the NoShame release, it is accompanied by a making of featurette (14:04). Also included is the Baino-directed music video "The Face and the Body" (4:30). (Eric Cotenas)
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