Dark Waters (1994)

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).

SPOILER ALERT…

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.

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Dark Shadows (2012)

Saw this on friday. The general consensus, at least as I’ve heard it is that the movie isn’t terribly offensive, but that it’s not great, either. I’m inclined to agree. Oddly enough, those familiar with the original series tend to be more forgiving of the film’s faults than those who aren’t; I’ve read reviews by people who hate the film with a passion, none of whom bothered to check out the original as a reference. For the record, I’m the former, having watched reruns of the 1966 series on Sci-Fi during the 90’s.

The film begins with an exposition heavy prologue, which explains how the Collins family traveled to the New World to start a fishing empire. After Joshua (Ivan Kaye ) and Naomi (Susanna Cappellaro) Collins are crushed under the weight of a fallen gargoyle, son Barnabas (Johnny Depp), rather than blaming lousy craftsmanship, decides that evil is afoot and begins studying the dark arts. Things take a turn for the worse when Barnabas’ bride to be Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) takes a dive off widow’s peak under the spell of jealous witch Angelique (Eva Green). 200 years later, Victoria Winters (played by Heathcote as a composite of Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans from the original series), a young woman abandoned by her family, decides to take a job as a nanny for the dysfunctional Collins family, whose canning business has been threatened by fierce competition. Meanwhile, workers accidentally unearth the chained coffin of Barnabas, cursed as a vampire . Deciding to resume his post as patriarch and restore the family name, Barnabas returns to the family manor, only to discover that things aren’t quite as he left them, except, that is, for Angelique…

All of the performances tend to the melodramatic, as befitting a campy soap opera. Johnny Depp does the usual “pasty british guy in a Tim Burton movie” (see also Sleepy HollowAlice in Wonderland, Sweeny Todd, etc). Michelle Pfeiffer makes for a passable Elizabeth, and Jackie Earle Haley and Jonny Lee Miller turn in okay performances. Chloë Grace Moretz‘s take on Carolyn as a sullen, bitchy (all puns intended) teen is worlds away from the original, bubbly Carolyn of the series, and Bella Heathcote is incredibly bland and wooden, though despite being set up as the main character, her appearances tend to be brief, and she has little to no chemistry with Depp at all. Eva Green as Angelique is part Bette Davis from All About Eve and part Meryl Streep from Death Becomes Her, though neither necessarily in a good way, make of that what you will. Gulliver McGrath scores sympathy as David (if nothing else, he’s much less irritating than the original) though he isn’t given much in the way of screen time. The cameos by the original cast are non-speaking roles and painfully brief, of the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” variety (Alice Cooper gets more screen time then the late Jonathan Frid gets). But the best has to go to Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, David’s live-in psychologist, here a vain, neurotic drunk (no small ‘take that” to Grayson Hall, the horrendously terrible actress from the original, who only got the part because she was married to one of the show’s writers).

The story is a mixed bag, not really certain if it wants to be comedy, drama or horror, and switches between the two on a whim. It feels like the writers were trying desperately to squeeze in as much from five seasons of the show as they could, although any one or two of the story arcs from the series could have, with a few minor changes, made a serviceable film adaption on their own. As it is, the script relies too heavily on either exposition or fish out of water gags and not nearly enough on character development, until the end, when a series of twists are conveniently revealed in rapid succession, one of which comes out of nowhere and does little to further the story. What keeps the film from being intolerable is the concept itself; the references, however changed, to the original series, and to 70’s culture in general. Fans familiar with the original, given the admittedly cheesy nature of the series, are more likely to see past the flaws than those going in blind. Honestly, for what it was, it was fun, and I wasn’t nearly as offended as I thought I would be. In any case, let’s hope a reknewed interest in the show will result in a DVD release of the real DS films: House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows.

Things I learned from this movie:

  • Ronald McDonald is the devil incarnate
  • Human hearts are both transparent and luminescent
  • The quality of a wife can be measured by the size of her birthing hips
  • Hippies are as understanding as they are thirst-quenching
  • Lycanthropy is the ultimate mythical metaphor for PMS