Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Dark Waters (Temnye Vody)

By Brian M. Sammons

Dark Waters (1993). Director: Mariano Baino. Cast: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist. Country: Russia; Italy; UK.

Hello, my fellow cinecephalophiles and welcome back to Cthulhu Eats the Movies, the place where we look at Lovecraftian films, for better or worse. Today, we have a special review, requested by a reader named ‘Michael’. Yes, I do requests every now and then, as not even my Cyclopean knowledge of Lovecrafty flicks knows all the films that have been influenced by HPL. A perfect example of this is today’s feature presentation, 1993’s Dark Waters, a Russian, Italian, British conglomerate that has a smallish cult following, but was honestly a movie I never bothered to watch until receiving this request. Yeah, I know, me missing out a horror movie…inconceivable! To rectify that grievous oversight, I once again turned to my good buddies at NetFlix (No, I’m not getting kickbacks from them, but I do so love their vast library of hard-to-get goodies) and had them send me this DVD. So, was this a long-lost gem of a movie that I should profusely thank Michael for shining a light on for me, or should I send a couple of Dreamlands gugs over his way to smash his kneecaps for making me sit through the usual direct-to-DVD dire dreck? Well, don’t eat for an hour and grab your water wings, boys and girls, we’ve got some Dark Waters to swim through before we find out.

A young Englishwoman named ‘Elizabeth’ returns to “the old country”, which in this case means somewhere vaguely Eastern European, or, more succinctly, Ukraine, where this movie was filmed. She’s there to check out her father’s estate, which she just inherited after his death. Once there, she learns that Daddy Dearest was giving generously to a convent of very odd nuns on a barren, rocky island nearby. Deciding to find out why she should continue to give the strange sisters money, as her father requested, she goes out to the nunnery and the sisters allow her to stay with them for as long as she needs to see the importance of their order firsthand.

Upon arriving at the convent, Elizabeth makes friends with a young nun-in-training and the two begin their investigations into the bizarre events. And by ‘bizarre’, I mean nuns that like to walk around with big, flaming crosses, when they are not whipping themselves in their candle-lit catacombs, or murdering folks, or going blind at a far-too-frequent rate. Speaking of blind, there is a sightless priest who paints prophetic pictures in his locked cell, in blood, of murder, mayhem and a decidedly fishy-looking demon. Add to that strange dreams Elizabeth begins to have about her long-forgotten childhood, an amulet of the aforementioned, vaguely Cthulhuish horror that seems to be both worshiped and feared by the nuns, and a beast, “born from the union of a human being and the mother of eternal sorrow.”

There are some nice Lovecraftian touches to be found in this film. There’s the always-popular Big Book of Forgotten Lore. The usual small town, creepy, inbred yokels that could easily have come from Dunwich or Innsmouth. Not to mention, questionable breeding practices far beyond simple inbreeding resulting in not-quite-human offspring. Oh, and a critter behind a wall that could be Cthulhu’s cousin.

Now, despite the film being a multinational production, director Mariano Baino is as Italian as they come and so, too, is this movie, for both good and bad. First, the good: this film, like most Italian horror movies, is simply beautiful to watch. Bava (both Mario and Lamberto), Fulci, Argento, and other Italian fearmasters make visually arresting movies that definitely stress style over substance. I mean, one of the great Italian horror films of all time, Argento’s Susperia, is a surreal nightmare that’s stunning to look at, but, like many surreal nightmares, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Well, the same can be said for Dark Waters, at times, and that leads us to….

The bad, which, in this case, is twofold. First, the story is confusing and meanders somewhat. Strange stuff seems to happen just for the sake of having strange stuff happen and no other reason. As I said, is it surreal? It sure is, and is often disturbing, but does it add to a coherent story? No, not one little bit. So, if you’re one of those people that like a more-straightforward plot, Dark Waters may leave you a bit high and dry.

The second aspect of this film that sort of bothered me is another thing that I find in lots of Italian fright flicks, even those aspiring to follow in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft, and that is the overuse of Catholic symbolism and story elements. Now, that might be expected in this movie, as it does take place in a convent, but that means this film is about 70% based on Judeo-Christian concepts of evil and horror and only about 25% based on the cosmic dread of HPL. Yes, for you math whizzes out there, that leaves 5% of “other” mixed in for good measure. Once again, some may not mind that, but those looking for a thoroughly Lovecraftian film may feel a bit disappointed.

Final Verdict: while it only borrowed a few elements from H.P. Lovecraft, I did find this an enjoyable flick to watch. It’s got a neat little mystery at its core, a very distinctive look, a few creepy moments, and that undeniable Italian cinema feel that I enjoy almost as much as good Italian food. Not for everyone and not for those solely interested in Lovecraftian movies, Dark Waters is worth a watch for horror fans looking for something a little different.

Dark Waters can be purchased through Amazon.com.

Brian Sammons is an author and critic of dark things and an all-around troublemaker. Sadly, you can’t follow him on Twitter because he abhors Twitter.

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