Monday, December 27, 2021

Nuns In the Sun

How many times have you dared to click on a listicle claiming to contain the best horror films you've never seen, only to skim through the same old compilation you've seen time and time again with your eyes rolled so hard they do a full Price Is Right wheel around?

When you stumble upon an interesting looking of a film on Shudder and see 1993 cited as the film's date, it's hard to expect much. SURELY, you say, if it was anything special you would have heard about it by now, right?

It's nice to be wrong.

Quick Plot: Somewhere on a rocky precipice overlooking a violent beach, a nun holding a stone amulet plummets to her bloody death. Was it sinful Catholic suicide, or did a mystery murderer give her a push?

Put a pin in that, as we move our focus to a classy young British woman named Elizabeth. She's journeying to this remote island in order to investigate the isolated convent her recently deceased father has been funding for the last twenty years. Now the sole heir to his fortune, Elizabeth wants to learn more about these mooching penguins and whether they're worth a cut.

Things at the convent are as severe as you'd expect. No television, no phones, no color. Elizabeth expected to find her old schoolpal Theresa there, but that nun-in-training has mysteriously vanished. Instead, Elizabeth is assigned the young Sarah as her companion, a kind orphan who's never left the island (which likely explains her fashion style: sad burlap nun snuggie):

Strange things start to happen on the island, beginning with Elizabeth discovering a horrific painting that suggests a sad fate for dear Theresa. Sarah vows to help her escape but warns that the next boat isn't due for a week, but when that proves to be wrong, Elizabeth is left wondering if there's anyone she can trust.

Surely not the crazy old lady who seems to recognize her, the creepily blind Mother Superior, or the blood-covered local always holding a knife? With this batch, the Caliban-ish first mate who introduced himself by tearing a raw fish apart looks darn good.

Dark Waters
goes a lot more Lovecraftian places, and all of it unfolds in shockingly beautiful photography. Filmed in remote stretches of Ukraine just after the fall of the Soviet Union, it feels out of time in the best of ways. How the HECK was this made the same year as Leprechaun and Ticks

Based on co-screenwriter Andrew Bark's short story, Dark Waters was Mariano's Baino's full-length directorial debut...and unfortunately thus far, his only film. Some web sleuthing suggests he works regularly as an artist, but considering how fresh Dark Waters feels for its time, it's a shame we haven't seen more.

By no means is this a perfect film. While it's clearly going for style over substance, some of the substance could still have used a little more tightening up. The acting is almost certainly a feat of editing and ADR, with the intricacies of human faces doing far more effective work than well-delivered dialogue.

But even with its flaws, Dark Waters is something special. It explores, rather than commits to some fascinating themes regarding religion. The Catholic nuns wear the uniform of an institution we know well, but the film kind of brilliantly plays their rituals as that of monstrous cult activities (which to be fair, are in reality as well). This might be a Lovecraft-inspired tale written by two men, but Dark Waters is also refreshingly female from top to bottom. 

I can't say this film will work for everybody, as it's messy and more than occasionally nonsensical (OR NUNSICAL IF YOU PREFER), but if the tone hits you, it will hit hard. 

High Points
Typically, describing a movie filmed in 1993 as looking like it was found in a dusty Italian vault sealed in 1972 wouldn't be a compliment, but I mean that in the best possible way. Dark Waters has such a striking, timeless look about it, and its sparse dialogue and overwhelming ocean soundtrack feeds into that mystery with so much mood. 

Low Points
I truly don't require clear storytelling in my atmospheric horror, but a few small expository decisions at the film's start to better explain some the basics involving Theresa, Sarah, and Elizabeth would have made it easier to get swept up in the visuals rather than be distracted trying to understand certain connections

Lessons Learned
American currency will buy you a lot of secrets, especially on mysteriously defined island countries

Sometimes it's best to just, you know, honor the dying wish of your father

Here's a really hot tip: the life of a nun, even one associated with demonic cults, is a serious drag. Don't do it girls. '

While I'd put Dark Waters just a few rungs down Messiah of Evil on my next list of surreal(ish) atmospheric classics that deserve more love, my husband spent its 90 minutes trying to keep his eyes open, which is to say that this is likely a VERY hit hard or miss badly watch. My vote: wait for a particularly stormy night, turn the lights off, queue it up on Shudder, and get lost. The worst that can happen is you'll be so bored that you'll fall asleep, which you were planning on doing ANYWAY, so what's the harm? It's streaming now on Shudder, with a fully loaded DVD/Blu Ray available through Severin. Apparently initial releases included a toy demon amulet, but I'm holding out for the version that includes this needlepoint pattern:

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