The 13th Floor

Good Bad Habits: Director Mariano Baino on Nunsploitation Epic DARK WATERS

The sunken depths of Manhattan’s Lovecraft bar seem like the perfect place to talk to Mariano Baino, whose 1994 film DARK WATERS is resurfacing as a long-awaited Blu-ray from Severin Films today. Severin and publicist Josh Johnson (dressed for the occasion in a nun’s habit) set up an interview op with Baino last night in Lovecraft’s lower level amidst the occult-themed decor, as soundtrack selections from gialli and other horrific music seeped from the walls.

A combination of two great Eurohorror traditions — nunsploitation and colorful, grisly supernatural shenanigans—DARK WATERS stars Louise Salter as Elizabeth, a young Englishwoman who travels to a remote island convent after the death of her father, to find out why he had been financially supporting it. Once there, Elizabeth learns that the friend who was supposed to greet her has gone missing, which is just the beginning of a series of mysterious and, soon enough, shocking and depraved developments she is confronted with. Originally released Stateside on VHS as DEAD WATERS, the movie received far more respectable DVD treatment in 2006 from NoShame Films, which packaged the extras-crammed disc in a big box with a 48-page booklet and a replica of the demonic stone amulet! Now it’s on Blu-ray with a batch of new supplements from Severin, and Baino couldn’t be happier.

“I feel lucky that this is a film that continues to connect with people,” he says. “The fact that it keeps being rediscovered and rereleased is obviously, for me, a great privilege. The quality of that DVD, the care they put into the packaging, was unheard of. It’s the same with Severin Films; they’re releasing it for the right reasons. They don’t have any agenda; they just love certain movies, and want the world to see them. Having them put DARK WATERS out on Blu-ray for the first time is great.”

One reason DARK WATERS has endured is the timeless quality that Baino built into the production values. “At the time it first came out, it could have been a film that was made 20 years before; now it’s a movie that could have been made today, referencing certain things from the past, and also one that could have been made in the ’70s. That was by design; for example, when Elizabeth arrives on the island, the first thing the nuns do is take away her modern clothing. That was a way to psychologically strip the character of her identity, but also a visual way to make everything seem ageless. Then there’s the fact that this island has no electricity, no telephones, nothing. So immediately, that creates a world with no identifiable objects from a certain year. The more you take that stuff away, it becomes very difficult for the audience to think, when is this set?”

The lack of civilized trappings adds to the eerie mood suffusing DARK WATERS, which was filmed on stark locations in Ukraine. Baino had originally intended to set his demon-haunted convent on an isle off the coast of Scotland, until what he describes as “a happy accident” led to a severe change of scenery. “My short film CARUNCULA [included on Severin’s Blu-ray] ended up at a film festival in Siberia, and Andy Bark, the editor of CARUNCULA who was co-writing DARK WATERS with me, happened to be in Siberia because he had a pen pal there! So he went to this festival and met a man named Victor Zuev, who said, ‘I really love the film, what are you doing now?’ ‘Oh, we’re writing this feature…’ ‘If you want to make this movie in Russia, I’ll produce it.’ So we ended up in Ukraine, and it was seriously a different universe. It was like going to another planet.”

As Baino describes it, traditional on-set protocols were definitely alien to the local crewpeople. He recalls them having a…relaxed attitude toward keeping to a daily shooting schedule, and also problems with certain props. “We were filming down in these catacombs, and I wanted flaming crosses in there. I thought, ‘OK, flaming crosses, they’ll have a way of doing that.’ They said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it!’ Then: two pieces of wood, and rags soaked in gasoline. They lit the thing, and after 15 seconds, there was so much smoke, everyone was choking and no one could see anything. So then we had to wait for it to clear to do another shot. Every day there was a new adventure, a different, unexpected thing.”

Since DARK WATERS, Baino has written several other features and helmed a number of short films, including a new one called LADY M. 5.1, in collaboration with actress Coralina Cataldi Tassoni. Best-known for her roles in Dario Argento films including OPERA, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MOTHER OF TEARS as well as Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS 2, Tassoni previously collaborated with Baino on the screenplay for an ill-fated feature called HIDDEN 3D. She joined Baino at the Lovecraft press event, and explains the origins of LADY M. 5.1 (which will play at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives on Saturday, May 6 at 2:30 p.m.). “I wanted to do a classic monologue, and I came across someone doing the soliloquy of Lady Macbeth — ‘Out, damned spot,’ the whole piece. It was just someone doing an audition, it wasn’t in a movie or something like that. But something struck me about it, and I said, ‘I have to do this.’ ”

The irony of this, she admits, is that “When I was in school — an all-girls’ Catholic school in Rome — I used to draw during our Shakespeare classes, and I never, ever thought I would perform his words. And even though Argento’s OPERA is about MACBETH, and my father was a stage director and I would hear people at the house singing arias from the opera, I’ve never seen MACBETH, the play or the movie, before. And when this short happened, I made it a point not so see any version, because there are great artists who have done this soliloquy, and I think I would have lost the spontaneity.”

This turned out to be no typical Shakespearean film, however. “All of a sudden,” Baino says, “I got this idea to make it into a science fiction thing. It’s set after humanity has disappeared, and these new lifeforms have spontaneously assembled themselves from all the rubbish we have left behind. They’re mechanical creatures that don’t know what humanity was, so they start absorbing all the knowledge they can, but one thing they cannot understand: emotions. So they discover Shakespeare, who seems to be good at emotions, and come up with this plan where they resurrect Lady Macbeth, and make her play her famous scene forever and ever. They’re observing her and studying her, and you realize that it will never end, because they can’t understand it.”

The duo are currently working on a new feature script called ASTRID’S SAINTS, Tassoni reveals. “It’s a psychological drama,” she says, “and it was originally supposed to take place in Brooklyn, but it has shifted now to Naples, Italy. My family on my mother’s side comes from a small town around Naples [Baino hails from the area as well], and we have a lot of support from the city and from the film commission. They really want us to make this movie.”