Dark Waters IIDark Waters is an effective and intimate Southern gothic thriller, directed by House of Wax helmer, André de Toth, which deftly blends a swampy, sinister murkiness with a whimsical touch of Creole hospitality.  Merle Oberon is Leslie Calvin, the film’s protagonist, the heiress of an oil fortune and survivor of a submarine accident off the coast of New Orleans.  The accident leaves Leslie mentally disturbed and paranoid from the outset.  Introduced with undertones of interior mental anguish, Dark Waters immediately establishes itself as a psycho-melodrama.  At the suggestion of her psychiatrist, Leslie travels to her sole relatives’ nearby plantation and, along the way, meets the dapper country physician, Dr. Grover, played with earnestness and genteel masculinity by Mutiny on the Bounty’s Franchot Tone.  Dark Waters becomes illuminated once Leslie reaches her aunt and uncle’s massive plantation, and the main conflict of the film slowly emerges.

Along with Leslie’s seemingly preoccupied aunt and uncle, we are introduced to a pair of houseguests at the plantation, Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) and the peevish Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.).  These two veteran character actors are put to good use here, instantly bringing an unnerving quality to the film, as they force Leslie to recount the recent traumatic events, exacerbating her anxiety and hysteria.   The psychologically disturbing scenes, however, are counterbalanced as Dr. Grover escorts Leslie to a neighboring French family’s home. Dark Waters constantly shifts between these two locations, and the recurrent locale switches suddenly and frequently break the tension of the film.  The juxtaposition subtly invites the viewer to experience and participate in Leslie’s confusion and disorientation.

Leslie and Grover fall into an inevitable romance, but she rejects him, blaming her ostensible mental turmoil.  Leslie soon discovers, from a recently relieved plantation worker, Pearson Jackson (Rex Ingram), that everything is not as it seems at her family’s estate.  As Leslie begins to learn more about her relatives, Mr. Sydney and Cleave continue to menace her, and she becomes a physical and psychological prisoner of the plantation.  Murder and mayhem ensue and a slight twist in the story occurs – both completely predictable and logical.  The film flourishes in its final third, as an extended confrontation plays out through the bayou.  While Dark Waters has many fine performances, the film belongs to Ms. Oberon, who appears manic at first, and then warms into a relatable heroine, marked with intelligence and conviction.

The damp and dense atmosphere of the film is memorably conveyed through Dark Waters’ able cinematography, that beautifully captures the lush jungle exteriors of the bayou and the sultry gothic interiors of the plantation.  Undoubtedly, Dark Waters’ atmosphere is the most effective element of the film, retaining a spectral and veiled quality even in the scenes shot in broad daylight. Mr. de Toth takes his time developing the unique mood of the film, and guides his actors to create dimensional characters who appear honest and believable – almost restrained.  Dark Waters is an overlooked psychological Southern Gothic horror film that does not rely on shock or cheap scares.  Through careful pacing, it establishes itself as a slow burner that requires patience and investment to truly enjoy its intimate, nuanced terrors.