Whatever you do, don’t pop into Dark Water if you’re in a low-down lousy mood and you’re looking for The Movies to supply a pick-me-up. Because one of the things this Asian-horror remake does really well is create the blackest of black moods right from its opening moments, and then deepens it and explores it and toys with it as if it’s trying to see just how despairing and miserable it can make you feel.
Go into the flick already in a state of despair and misery, and you just might end up coming out in a straitjacket.
And that’s a good thing, honestly. You just have to be in the right mindset to appreciate it. It’s the rare film'and the even rarer horror film'that manages to create any kind of mood, let alone one that it can sustain and nurture and practically make a character in itself.
There are a lot of elements that feel very familiar in Dark Water, if you’ve been following the Asian horror remakes-and-imitators trend, but the relentless psychological desolation that rumbles ominously throughout is unique, and elevates it above most of the genre.
You might say the misery is personified in the dreary New York City apartment Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) and her little daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) move into as the film opens. It’s tiny, dark and looks like it hasn’t been renovated since the second Nixon administration. There’s also an ugly water leak in the ceiling of the only bedroom.
This is extra-depressing for people who actually live in New York, because this is one of the most realistic-looking NYC apartments I’ve ever seen on film; I think I saw this place the last time I was apartment-hunting. And it’s starring in a horror film about a creepy, haunted apartment.
Misery is also personified, of course, in Jennifer Connelly, who seems to be making a career out of playing fragile, wounded head cases, but at least here the rest of the movie around her supports it. Who wouldn’t be depressed living in this apartment, having your ex-husband (Dougray Scott) hounding you with threats of child-custody battles, being forced to deal with the creepy building super (Pete Postlethwaite) and the even creepier'in that unctuous pseudo-ingratiating way'building manager (John C. Reilly) who can’t even agree on whose responsibility it is to fix that damned leak? Plus, it’s always raining. Plus, Dahlia has some serious stuff in her past, childhood stuff to do with a Really Bad Mother who was not very nice to Dahlia when she was a little girl.
Though Dark Water is based upon The Ring creator Hideo Nakata’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara from a new script by Rafael Yglesias, the success of the film is down to Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries; 1999 Foreign Language Oscar nominee Central Station). The tone of the film is all his, and it creates a “horror film” that’s actually genuinely horrifying because it isn’t about spooks jumping out and saying “Boo!” but about how we haunt ourselves.
For much of its running time, the film only hints at the supernatural. We don’t know whether Dahlia is merely an unwell woman being driven a little nuts by circumstance, whether Ceci’s imaginary friend really is simply the childish affectation of a confused kid and not a malicious spirit, or whether the apartment above them (from which the ugly black leak is emanating) really is occupied by ghosts. What side of the paranormal spectrum it all ends up on is up to you to find out.
But it doesn’t really matter, because what’s really real here, what lingers in a disturbing way that will haunt you long after you’ve left the theater, is the weight of human fear'of rejection, of abandonment, of being forgotten. And it resonates through all the characters, including Platzer (Tim Roth), the lawyer who comes to Dahlia’s aid. Even among this uniformly superb cast, Roth shines, in a bleak way, as a man who lies to protect his own fragility.
You have been warned: This isn’t like any horror film you’ve seen lately. Approach with care, and don’t let it get too deeply under your skin, or you may end up as lost as Dahlia and Platzer.