Not to be confused with the 2002 Japanese film Dark Water, or its subsequent 2005 American remake, Mariano Baino’s Dark Waters, along with Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man, stood as the dying breaths of the Italian Horror wave that flourished throughout the 70’s and 80’s. While Dark Waters did not play with genre expectations the way that Soavi’s masterpiece had, being, all in all, a straightforward nunsploitation flick, the film nevertheless stands as a major achievement (albeit a grossly underappreciated one) with much to recommend it.
Elizabeth (Louise Salter) travels to a convent on a remote island, the place of her birth, to discover why her late father had been making payments to a secretive order of nuns. After a few colorful experiences with the degenerate locals, Liz arrives to discover that her friend Teresa (Anna Rose Phipps), who had gone on ahead to study what she could about the order and it’s practices, has vanished. Assisted by Sarah (Venera Simmons) , a young nun in training, Liz quickly deduces that Teresa was killed, and she herself may be next. Her suspicions worsen as she spies the nun’s bizarre rituals, less devoted to the worship of one deity, and more an effort to keep another at bay.
The film’s obvious inspiration, aside from the likes of Argento, and Bava, is the work of HP Lovecraft. The spectral meilu, facilitated by the Ukrainian locations and excellent cinematography, is pure Lovecraft, a world of strange villagers (no doubt a reflection of the Call-Of-Cthulu author’s extreme xenophobia), secret conspiracies, mystical objects, and aquatic horrors. Admittedly, the story takes a back seat to the gorgeous visuals (by no means an uncommon issue when judging italian horror), and leaves many issues seemingly unaddressed, however, attentive viewers familiar with The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Lovecraft in general can put together what’s going on based on thematic hints and visual cues (my own interpretation, with spoilers, can be found below).
While it’s easy to write off Dark Waters as being way too generic in terms of story and set-up, in particular when compared to what had come before (Lucio Fulci’s Demonia comes to mind), it manages to work surprisingly well with what it has, and is nothing if not an homage to the Italian Horror genre it copies, as much a love letter to the past as Cemetery Man was a promise for the (sadly unrealized) future. For many years only available in a barely watchable VHS/DVD bootleg under the alternate title Dead Waters, it was later re-released in 2007 as a fully restored Director’s cut. Highly recommended for a least a rental, copies of the 2007 version are, to my knowledge, available from Netflix (though as of this writing, not available for streaming).
So what was really going on? (please note that this is just my interpretation, based on a few somewhat educated guesses, and intended only for those who have already seen the film)
Centuries prior to the beginning of the film, Catholic missionaries came upon the island and found it inhabited by worshippers of an aquatic demon. Not having any of that, the missionaries captured the demon, shattering the amulet which stood as the source of its powers and burying the separate pieces. The missionaries then build the convent, in fact a prison to hold the now weakened creature, and presumably convert the locals.
27 years prior to the main setting of the film, a male in the vicinity of the convent, possibly a priest, is somehow seduced by the demon and impregnates it (it sounds weird, but then the third vow of membership to Lovecraft’s Esoteric Order of Dagon was to marry and bear/sire a child of an old one, so it wouldn’t be out-of-place here), producing a pair of twin girls, Elizabeth and Sarah. Whoever the father was, it couldn’t have been the man who took Elizabeth to London, since he would have been cursed with blindness/second sight after seeing the demon; the most likely candidate for the twin’s bio-dad is probably the painter in the pit. The twins are placed in the care of a couple in the village, and the now blind father is shut up in the pit, his psychic predictions taking the forms of elaborate paintings.
20 years prior to the main setting, the girls are 7 years old and beginning to act out in bizarre ways that betray their true natures. One of the girls manages to dig up the pieces of the amulet and fits them together, causing the amulet to fuse and become whole (we aren’t shown this actually happening, presumably to save money on special effects, however, it is implied mise-en-scene). Its powers temporarily restored, the demon destroys part of the convent during a storm and kills off a priest. A nun finds the amulet and runs off with it, only to be hunted down by the demon in the form of a spectral presence. The nun is killed, but the amulet breaks apart in the process. The twin’s adoptive mother is also killed; the father takes the only one of the two who could pass for normal, Elizabeth, to London, in order to keep her safe. Sarah is put back in the custody of the convent. Meanwhile the nuns manage to find the pieces of the amulet and hide them away again, this time within the convent walls.
Present day, Elizabeth, disobeying the wishes of her late adoptive father, returns to the island intent on discovering why he donated money to the convent, remembering nothing of her past and unaware the gratuities were being used to ensure the creature’s continued imprisonment. The nuns, fearing what might occur if the creature were ever released, or what would happen if the outside world were to discover the order’s habits (no pun intended), kill off any who try to interfere with what they see as their divine purpose, including Teresa, and almost Elizabeth herself.
Eventually Elizabeth realizes the truth: she murdered her own mother, not in childbirth but by eating her. Sarah, who had been masquerading as a lowly, innocuous assistant, and having more than a little resentment against the long-lost sister who got to have an actual life off the island, reveals herself and their real mother. Both attempt to lure her into their ways, but fail; Elizabeth manages to escape them both as the prison collapses around them, but is left blinded, having seen the true horror of the beast.