Dark Waters. 1993. Directed by Mariano Baino. Screenplay by Baino & Andy Bark.
Starring Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist, Lubov Snegur, Albina Skarga, Valeriy Bassel, Pavel Sokolov, Anna Rose Phipps, Tanya Dobrovolskaya, Valeriy Kopaev, Ludmila Marufova, Kristina Spivak, & Nadezhda Trimasova.
Not Rated. 89 minutes.
I’m always weary of the label Lovecraftian, because often people who don’t know any better link H.P. Lovecraft to any kind of horror involving tentacles or weird cults. However, Dark Waters – alongside John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness – is one of the most Lovecraftian stories on film outside of actual adaptations of the writer’s work. What cements it as such is that it’s a modern entry in the canon of the Gothic tradition, including not only what we expect of the genre, but also using the influence of H.P. in a way that actually translates to being labelled as Lovecraftian.
Mariano Baino’s 1993 film, for North American audiences, got lost in the undertow of the general state of ’90s horror. Now, there are a bunch of fine horror films out of the decade, despite what certain critics say. But while so many were chasing after Wes Craven’s Scream-style glory, pumping out ‘teen slashers’ like there was no tomorrow, Baino focuses on a uniquely twisted story about a woman named Elizabeth (Louise Salter) uncovering the hidden history of her father in regards to a mysterious island convent full of nuns.
Between a palpably dreadful atmosphere, the Gothic qualities of the story and its plot, eerie scenes to fill your boots, Dark Waters has more than enough to thrill genre fans that want something with more substance than any number of slasher flicks from the ’90s. Even without comparison, Baino’s work is fantastic, drawing us into an otherworldly place of strange beauty while simultaneously horrifying us.
Dark atmosphere is apparent from the start. A large reason comes from the setting and the natural locations. This is one of the very first Western films shot in Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every location is organic, compelling, they also give us that sense of isolation, lost out in the ocean amongst unforgiving rocky terrain, nothing else near but sea and sky. With the isolation is the dreary, rainy weather, a perpetual storm. Even inside water drips constantly, in the bright light of day the atmosphere remains eerie, as if there’s always strange things going on just below the island town’s surface.
The villagers themselves are likewise part of the atmosphere themselves, an aspect to each and every one of them which just seems off, strange and vaguely threatening. Minimal dialogue adds an extra layer of tension and unease, effectively telling the story with sparse words and carrying the mood with a feeling that little is said on this island out in the open; the important conversations ensure under cover of shadow.
Numerous images will stick in the audience’s mind. There’s the apocalyptic, Biblical imagery of a beach filled by dead fish. There’s a pale, demon-like nun hanging on a cross, wailing, moaning. Later, a woman is burned alive in her small hut by the shore; Elizabeth cradles her after she’s pulled from the flame, her skin crackling and black and oozing. Best of all, there’s something lurking beneath the convent, far under its foundation. This thing isn’t a high budget creature. Still unnerving. Feels exactly how an ancient, god-like entity kept in an underground tomb should: decrepit, gross, awful. In brief glimpses and claustrophobic quarters, its power is inevitable.
Dark Waters operates within the Gothic tradition. Atmosphere is one thing, but a Gothic tale requires certain elements. Straight away, there’s the concept of burrowing below the surface, both literally and figurative; digging under a family’s history, also a literal dig into the past, going underground, going under the convent. Our protagonist Elizabeth must dig into the history of her father, her own birth, in turn finding what’s beneath the convent, what sort of secret entity lives there and is worshipped by the nuns.
Every element of the film plays into its Gothic-ness. Those family secrets being uncovered, the isolated island convent. At the start, there’s a gruesome suicide, or so it seems first, by a nun to open the film. This all leads into more connective tissue between this modern horror film and the long string of Gothic stories which came before.
Moreover, there’s the idea of a cult, but not just a cult – this is a particularly Lovecraft influenced cult. They worship a dark, unknown god, one that remains indifferent to the suffering of real people, one who expects worship; this is the idea found in H.P’s work of man worshipping something outside of itself, something Other. In turn, this draws us towards the idea of the cosmos, how the real gods are hideous beings unconcerned with our lives, definitely not with our deaths. Ultimately it speaks to the insignificance of man. We work from a personal story, that of Elizabeth’s birth and her father’s connection to the convent, to a highly universal theme, and this allows its epic qualities – topped off by us meeting the cult god in the climax – to shine on like a dark, crazy diamond.
This is perfect for any dark night, especially in October, as Halloween draws near. Dark Waters ought to be more known, deserves a great Blu ray release, too. It’s one of the best Gothic, Lovecraftian films in existence, not just of the last few decades. There are plenty of Gothic stories throughout the history of horror, Baino’s film belongs next o them, it’s a ’90s masterpiece that feels as if it could’ve easily been made in the ’80s.
If you’re looking for lots of talking, lots of killing, this isn’t your horror bag. Yes, there’s plenty of blood, in particular nearing the finale. But it’s built on minimalist dialogue, the story evoked most in the atmosphere, the actions and expressions of the characters, the locations themselves, the eerie convent. Go in expecting a literary Gothic, rather than a typically film-style Gothic. Like reading a great, strange, spooky book.
Can’t recommend this enough. Do yourself a favour this season, get hold of a copy and freak yourself out. Best viewed by yourself, in the dark, wondering what those sounds outside on a quiet, windy night are, if they’re trees, or if it’s something scratching to get in. Just hope as hard as you can whatever it is doesn’t have a tentacle, and that it isn’t hungry.