In 1994, director Mariano Baino released Dark Waters, a dark Italian horror film with roots in the Nunsploitation genre, as well as the films of Mario Bava and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. While it enjoyed a cult classic reputation for many years, Dark Waters was recently restored and released on Blu-ray by Severin Films, finally making the film accessible to long-time fans, as well as horror geeks (like me!) looking to discover something new and creepy to love.
Dark Waters kicks off with a bit of prologue to set the stage. We’re introduced to a creepy convent, hidden away on a remote Italian island, littered with jagged coastline, churning water, and some dark secrets. A young priest is studying a book with strange symbols while a violent storm rages and water finally begins seeping into the decaying church, killing the priest. At the same time, a young nun is trying to escape to the coast, bearing a large amulet with a strange symbol on it. The nun turns and sees something so frightening that she plummets to her death and the amulet smashes onto the rocks below. An unseen hand collects the pieces and suddenly, we’re pushed twenty years into the future, as a young woman from London, Elizabeth (Louise Salter), travels to the island.
Elizabeth’s recently deceased father had been funding the strange convent and Elizabeth, who was actually born on the island, has decided to ignore her father’s warnings to never return. Her trip is littered with strange characters who seem obstinate in her attempts to actually get to the island, which seems locked in both the past and its own weird world. When Elizabeth finally does meet with the convent’s Mother Superior, an ancient blind woman, she explains that she is there to decide if she will continue her father’s charitable funding.
At the same time, some creepy things are taking place beneath Elizabeth’s feet – specifically, in a secret underground cavern where the nuns seem to hold a strange, dark ceremony. A young girl, whom we learn is Elizabeth’s friend from London, has snuck into the cavern and is attempting to retrieve a piece of the amulet from the film’s opening, which has been hidden. The nuns hope to piece the amulet back together, to bring back a dark and demonic force. It doesn’t bode well for Elizabeth’s snooping friend nor for Elizabeth, who has been paired with a young novice named Sarah, a woman who is helping her discover the secrets of the convent but whom Elizabeth suspects might be harboring one of her own.
Although not a traditional Giallo film, the influence of one of the genre’s greatest directors, Mario Bava, can be felt throughout Dark Waters. Deaths are gruesome and plentiful, laden with religious iconography. There are brutal and bloody impalements, burning crosses and strange characters that hold the key to Elizabeth’s forgotten past. While it feels like a fresh story in its own right, the elements are familiar nods to the films that proliferated Baino’s own childhood, one steeped in horror films. As we chatted in the basement of New York City’s Lovecraft Pub, an apt location considering some of the elements in Dark Waters, Baino explained the influences on his film.
“I grew up in Italy during the Golden Age of Italian genre cinema and of course, I mean I couldn’t help it,” Baino told me. “But people may not understand that in Italy, it is much more mainstream. In Italy, when I was growing up our parents would go see these films, not teenagers. I still remember the first time I heard of Dario Argento, in a way he was this mythical figure that people talked about. I remember the first time I heard about The Exorcist, I remember my parents talking to some of their friends about this film and I could hear snippets and I was so scared. I actually didn’t sleep for days just hearing about it. And it wasn’t supposed to be for a ten-year-old, it was supposed to be for our parents. But in Italy that’s how it is, people are much more omnivorous…these films aren’t considered genre.”
Without spoiling much, the work of H.P. Lovecraft can be felt most heavily toward the end of the film, when the secret of the amulet, as well as Elizabeth’s past, is finally exposed. It is this genre mashup – from traditional Italian genre to Nunsploitation to, finally, Lovecraftian creature horror – that makes Dark Waters stand out as a unique and dark horror gem. When I shared how I picked up these cues throughout the film, Baino was excited to hear my thoughts. “Influence is very much like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder,” he told me. “When it comes to me, strangely enough for someone who makes visuals, I was always much more influenced by reading. I still remember being in middle school and reading The Iliad and reading about the siege of Troy and suddenly, I still remember all the shots that were coming into my head. So when I discovered Lovecraft, it conjured images in my head.”
While I personally wouldn’t consider Dark Waters a traditional Nunsploitation film – these aren’t young and lusty nuns breaking their vows but instead nuns hell-bent on catering to the dark force they worship – the film draws on the darker side of Catholicism, the violent imagery, and heavy symbolism-laden within the religion. While this certainly falls in line with the needs of a horror film, it is also something Baino culled from his experiences growing up in a Catholic country.
“If you’ve been to Southern Italy, the version of Catholicism you get here is totally sanitized, even the churches are very bright,” Baino said. “In Naples, you get Jesus with not just one wound but many, the knees are broken, there’s blood everywhere, it’s terrifying, and when you see that religion doesn’t feel comforting. I had one nightmare growing up that happened three times when I was a child. I was home in Naples and suddenly the window burst open there was Jesus on the crucifix and I was terrified. When people used to say Jesus appeared to them in the hospital when they were sick I used to say, ‘please Jesus, don’t appear to me’ even though it was supposed to be a comforting thing, it wasn’t.”
The horror of religion is certainly present throughout Dark Waters, but there’s also an eerie vibe cloaking all of Elizabeth’s interactions on the island, akin to The Wicker Man, where something strange is happening and everyone is in on it, except the main character. Although it has long remained a hard-to-find cult classic, the Blu-Ray restoration of Dark Waters will hopefully find its way into the hands of horror fans and elevate its profile as an Italian gem from the early 1990s worth seeking out.