Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dark Waters (1993): or, The Devil is a Mutha


Like riding a unicycle downhill or trying to extemporize a coherent alibi after four pints of Guinness and no dinnner*, making a good Lovecraft-themed movie is hard to get right. Of course it stands to reason--since Uncle Howie's literary universe is packed to its rafters with unnameable, inconceivable horrors, the merest glimpse of which are enough to send his verbose, racist, woman-fearing protagonists into the pit of gibbering insanity, the translation from page to screen would have to be difficult, if not impossible. That's why the most successful Lovecraft-flavored movies have either taken H.P.'s words as a starting point to be spun off into the director's own ideas (see Stuart Gordon's output) or eschewed adaptation entirely and come up with their own tales tinged in Lovecraft's apocalyptic Elder dread (see John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness). Though many have tried and found themselves sadly unequal to the task, filmmakers keep going back to Lovecraft's dark regions in the hopes of one day getting it right.

*Hypothetically

Mariano Baino's 1993 creepfest Dark Waters (aka Dead Waters) may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film.

When bake-sale rivalries go bad..

We begin with a beautifully shot, wordless prologue set at an island convent located precariously on the cliff overlooking the (Baltic?) sea. A young girl rushes into a nun's cell to hand her a strangely carved stone seal bearing the image of a clawed, fanged, inhuman beast. As the terrified nun scurries outside with the mysterious artifact, the surging ocean threatens to invade the convent, welling up through its cliff-cave catacombs and soaking the icons with ominously dripping brine. An angry wave crashes through the cathedral, destroying it. Outside, the young nun rushes lemming-like to the cliff, and when startled by an Evil Dead-style POV shot, plunges over the side in terror. Both seal and nun shatter on the rocks below, and the storm abates. The remaining Brides of Christ gather up the shards and secret them in the catacombs in separate boxes and enclaves, never to be joined together again.

Yeah, as if.

NunSPLATation

Twenty years later, British girl Elizabeth (Louise Salter) comes to the island seeking her roots. She's discovered her recently deceased father had been making regular contributions to the convent's coffers, and wants to know why. The locals she encounters on the bus and in town are weirdos right out of Innsmouth--she encounters at various times a bug-loving hobo, a fisherman with a voice like concrete through a meat grinder, and the fisherman's friend, a Gollum-esque cretin with a taste for extremely fresh sushi. ("Don't mind him," the Slavic fisherman croaks. "He keeps the other freaks away!") Elizabeth is dropped at the island by said fisherman and informed that the next boat won't be coming by for a week. Plenty of time to lounge on the beach and catch some rays.

Through flashbacks we learn that Elizabeth's friend Teresa had been at the convent before in the nunnish capacity, and had written Elizabeth about her familial connection to the convent, prompting her visit. Sadly, before her friend arrived Teresa discovered part of the seal in the catacombs and met the expected fate: stabbed to death by a rampaging psycho nun! The girl dropped the fragment in her death throes, however, apparently allowing the evil to infiltrate the nunnery's Intimate Bathing Water Supply and causing all sorts of craziness later.

As a guest of the convent, Elizabeth starts asking questions, hoping to learn more about her mother, who died in childbirth. The Mother Superior assigns friendly, fresh-faced English-speaking sister Sarah (Venera Simmons) to be Elizabeth's guide. It's not long before Elizabeth is in the convent library reading about the pagan goddess who in legend once inhabited the island: "She who was, and is not, and yet is." Just the sort of thing Howie P would dig, if it wasn't being spouted by a bunch of people with vaginas.

Another Vegan snaps.

The remainder of the plot concerns Elizabeth's piecemeal discoveries about her parents' history and her own, which of course have everything to do with the weird villagers, the psycho nuns, and the evil lurking in the caves the sea has blasted into the cliff. You don't have to be a horror film scholar to figure out that the nuns will fail in their mission to keep the Evil from returning, and that Elizabeth's heritage will make her either the world's savior or its ruin.

First-time director Mariano Baino comes right out of the gate with style to spare, and his movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The use of light and shadow, smoke and fog and rain (this has to be one of the dampest movies I've seen in a while) give the flick a creepy, dreamlike atmosphere that's very effective. He also puts together some beautiful imagery: the leaking cathedral with its crucifix dripping seawater, cross-bearing nuns on the cliff silhouetted by the setting sun, the catacombs with their hundreds of flickering tapers. In fact, the director's painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.

The horror elements are handled well here too, and also beautifully shot. The creepy villagers elicit more than one shiver, particularly the offhand, threatening strangeness of the de facto tourist information clerk who gives Elizabeth the shipping schedules and handles post office duties for the convent. (When we first meet him, he seems to be butchering a human carcass in the back room, and even offers to let Elizabeth watch for a price. Later he's significantly feeding entrails to the seagulls.) The requisite blind wise woman is a visual cliche, but again handled well. (Blindness is a recurring theme, as supposedly anyone who has seen the evil is struck sightless. The old woman, the Mother Superior, and the mad monk in the catacombs who blindly paints prophetic or at least clairvoyant canvasses depicting death and horror, have all seen too much.)

Sister Clavell would never send the girls to bed early again.

Other horrific treats include the more of the psycho nun's exploits, Elizabeth's dreams of a crucified zombie nun hanging over two sweet-faced little girls, and the Mother Superior's goon squad who march the darkened hills with blazing crosses, setting fire to any hut that might contain information Elizabeth needs. Cool stuff.

Not as cool are some iffy effects in the final confrontation, including the least convincing body-horror suit I've seen outside of a Toxic Avenger flick. However, Baino does get props for keeping the main baddy in the shadows or glimpsed through cracks in the wall, which amplifies the effectiveness of what would have otherwise been a silly pile of latex puppetry. Also props for taking the yonic symbolism of the caves and the goddess figure to its extremes in that final confrontation, with the multi-titted bodysuit and some very suggestive folds of flesh on the demon/goddess.

Satan's Glory Hole

Also, the Russian/Slavic-accents of some of the minor characters are sometimes nearly indecipherable; I had to turn the subtitles on several times, and they were speaking English. Strangely, I had to do the same thing when I watched Stuart Gordon's Dagon, a film which I believe had the same Lovecraft source in mind as this one.

Baino's only other directing credit on imdb is a short film from 2004, which is kind of a shame, because Dark Waters really showed a lot of promise. Beautiful cinematography, well-handled tension, creepy atmosphere and more than a few chills make this one a winner. 2.75 thumbs.

It would be a while before Elizabeth attended another of the Duke's soirees.


4 comments:

The Costuminatrix said...

You know, I really oughta watch this movie again, now that you and La Tenebrous have given it the approval seal. I tried to watch a VHS copy of it once and for some reason the picture was so dark I couldn't see ANYTHING going on.

Gotta love some rampaging psycho nuns, though.

Adam Blomquist said...

No Shame did a really bang-up job on the disc for this. The LE even came with a ceramic replica of the seal. It's a real pity (not a shame...that would be a lame pun) they aren't around anymore.

Al Bruno III said...

This is one of the prized DVDs in my collection. It's a great film. It is the kind of film I trawl through the horror genre for a hidden gem.

If you are interested in other almost but not quite Lovecraft film check out these;

"The Resurrected"
This is a fantastic adaption of The Case Of Charles
Dexter Ward. They made changes to the story
but the plot and mystery are still there and some very tense
moments near the end.

"Marebito"
Ok this is an off the wall choice and not related to any actual
Lovecraft story but the spirit is there. We have an unreliable
narrator and a story that ponders if the Mountains of
Madness are under the streets of Japan. This one got mixed
reviews but I find it fascinating viewing.

"Strange Aeons:The Thing On The
Doorstep"
This is a low budget independent film adaption of The
Thing On The Doorstep. They may not have had a lot
of cash but they have more style and spirit than a dozen
current horror remakes. Yes liberties are taken but this is
gem of a film and Angela M. Grillo is a delight as Asenath
Waite

"Out of Mind: The Stories of HP Lovecraft"
It is part pastiche
and part introductory to Lovecraft. Incorporates actual
quotes from Lovectaft's letters and stories as dialog.

"The Call of Cthulhu"
The folks of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society created an adaption of the story in the style of a 1920's silent film. Very faithful to the source and very entertaining.

Geo said...

Wow, I totally missed this one. And me being a big HPL fan and all. Thanks for the tip, V. It looks to capture the suggested horror -- as opposed to the in-your-face variety -- that so defines Lovecraft. The screen gabs are very tasty -- def has some creep on it.
And hey, to some people, 4 pints of Guinness IS dinner.

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