Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (aka; Honogurai mizu no soko kara) was a difficult film to watch, not because it was particularly scary, but because it was just so infuriatingly plodding and deliberate that it took me more than a few sittings to even make it through the film. After hearing so many good things about this film, I was left to deduce that these positive comments simply had to be some sort of residual buzz carried over from the director’s other genre smash, Ringu, the film that, for all intents and purposes, really opened the floodgates for Japanese horror to wash up upon western shores. So when it was announced that Nakata would be making his Hollywood debut with a remake of Dark Water, I was less than enthusiastic. On one hand, I didn’t want to see Nakata have to compromise his vision for American audiences, yet, on the other hand, those very compromises would probably be just about the only thing that would make the film work for me. In the end, Nakata would not helm the project, instead, for better or worse, opting to return to The Ring series he helped to create, and Brazilian director, Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) stepped in. The result is a film that looks fantastic, has an amazing cast, and delivers its scares in a decidedly more efficient manner, yet, in the end, is proof-positive that a film is only as good as its story, and, in the case of Dark Water, well…the story ain’t so great in any language.
Dahlia (Connelly) is a divorced mother who has just been put through the ringer in her attempts to gain custody of her young daughter Ceci (Grade), and now simply wants a place where she and her daughter can call home. Of course, after such a protracted legal dispute, Dahlia isn’t exactly rolling in disposable income, and must settle on a somewhat rundown apartment building run by the eccentric Mr. Murray (Reilly), and looked after by Veeck (Postlethwaite), the creepy and curmudgeonly custodian. Almost immediately, Dahlia and Ceci begin to experience strange occurrences in the building, most notably, a ceiling in the apartment that leaks black water. Soon, the water is squirting from faucets and shower fixtures, puddling up in the hallways and rooms, and, in Dahlia’s mind, has to be coming from the floor above her. The problem is, according to Mr. Murray, no one has lived up there for ages. Veeck keeps trying to fix the problem, but things get worse, as do Dahlia’s dealings with her shattered husband (Scott), and this, combined with what Dahlia assumes are hallucinations brought on by stress, make her feel as though she’s the conductor on the crazy train. Meanwhile, young Ceci has made a new “imaginary” friend who, when not scaring the bejesus out of her, seems intent on leading the young girl to either the answers to Dahlia’s questions about the mysterious dark water, or a fate similar to her own.
Dark Water is essentially a “greatest hits” package of Japanese horror movie clichés, with loads of protracted scare sequences, seemingly innocuous evils, and, of course, a spooky girl/ghost serving as some sort of conduit between this world and the next. It’s all handled nicely, and the tension here is palpable, but we’ve all seen this before, and I’m not just talking about the original film, either. Still, I did enjoy this film in spite of all of this, and that is solely due to the fact that Jennifer Connelly’s heart-wrenching performance transcends the material, lending credence to otherwise incredulous circumstances. To say that Connelly carries the film is an understatement: she appears in nearly every frame, here, and Salles is apparently so in tune with what the actress is doing here that it’s almost as though he’s afraid to take the camera off of her. The supporting cast is also above par, with Reilly turning in yet another understated gem of a performance as the cagey Murray, and Tim Roth is wonderful as Jeff, Dahlia’s “budget” divorce lawyer who seems just as down on his luck as she is. The actors populate a world where everything looks damp, dreary and three shades of green; ceiling stains look like Rorschach tests, elevators have frosted glass windows that eerily glow like Jack-o-Lantern eyes, and the hallways sport exposed pipes and cables that could very well lead to this building’s black blood pumping heart. It’s all designed to lend the film a consistent sense of dread, which it does, but, sadly, we spend more time expecting to be scared than actually being scared, and, in the end, it’s the same sort of ghost story hokum we’ve seen in dozens of similarly themed Japanese horror flicks.
Still, Dark Water is very well put together, and the solid performances, along with Salles’ and cinematographer Affonso Beato’s intriguing visual interpretation of the material make for a better film than Nakata’s original, albeit for purely technical reasons. If you enjoyed The Grudge or The Ring, it’s safe to say you’ll have a good time with this one. However, if, like me, you’re starting to get the feeling that the Japanese “horror boom” is something of a one-trick pony, Dark Water will leave you high and dry.