If you took The Ring, The Grudge, The Tenant, The Sentinel, Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling, The Devil’s Backbone, Repulsion, The Ring Two and The Others, dropped them into a blender and pressed “puree,” you’d probably get something like Dark Water. This slow-paced art film of some considerable merit has bamboozled its way into multiplexes by masquerading as a straight horror picture.
I’m not saying it’s not a horror flick (so are all the others named above), but it’s clearly not aimed at the teenage slice-and-dice fan-base, most of whom would likely be bored out of their minds by it. Even approached as an artsy psychological ghost story, Dark Water is more creepy than exciting, and devoid of the occasional genuine shocks that allowed Gore Verbinski’s The Ring to cross the line between art movie and popular success. Oh, it tries to make that leap, but even its set-piece thrills are on the subdued side, and all of them seem just too predicated on that current staple of the genre: faulty plumbing.
If all this makes it sound like I didn’t like Dark Water, not so; it’s probably nearer correct to say that I admired it more than I actually enjoyed it. This is the sort of movie I’m apt to see a second time — but less for entertainment’s sake than to better appreciate the atmosphere, the performances and the shrewd construction.
On that score, Walter Salles’ first effort at a horror film is hard to fault — even if he occasionally overplays his hand with the water business. The nonstop rain (I don’t think there’s a single exterior shot where it isn’t raining or about to), and a sequence with a possessed washing machine, topple over into unintentional humor — something exacerbated by the film’s utter lack of intentional amusement.
Still, Dark Water has an intense creepiness that, like the titular water, seeps into every nook and cranny of its being. (There’s a certain irony in the fact that many of the prints shipped from the studio had water-damaged reels that had to be replaced before the first show on opening day!) And it’s perhaps not entirely fair to criticize Salles on the overflow of water in evidence, since water imagery appears to be central to Hideo Nakata’s original Japanese version of the story from 2002. (Certainly, drowning is a recurring Nakata theme, also appearing as a key point in The Ring.)
The plot itself is deceptively complex. What seems like an average haunting story — albeit refreshingly realistic in terms of setting — is actually a far more convoluted tale of child abandonment and its effects on the child, psychological disintegration (here the film owes much to two Roman Polanski movies, Repulsion and The Tenant), and alienation. These themes, however, are so splendidly housed in the ghost story — in fact, are related to it — that the effect is virtually seamless. Salles’ decision to cast Perla Haney-Jardine (so memorable as Uma Thurman’s daughter in Kill Bill Vol. 2) as two separate characters makes Dark Water just that much more of a piece.
The basic setup of suddenly single Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) finding an affordable apartment on New York’s Roosevelt Island is little more than serviceable. Similarly, the fact that the apartment is far less desirable than glib-tongued Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) paints it isn’t much more workable, though it’s certainly a departure from the standard old dark-house setup, and the apartment is shrewdly used in its transformation from dump to a kind of “not that bad” appearance before it becomes far worse than a dump.
The construction of the story is fascinating. Things that seem traditionally scary like the sinister building super, Veeck (Pete Postelwaite, The Shipping News), ultimately seem less so than things that initially appear quite innocent, like a Hello Kitty backpack. Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of the film is that little of what we think we know about the characters is finally borne out by events. It undeniably helps that the movie boasts a high-caliber cast in all the major roles.
What hurts Dark Water, however, is the abundance of things that belong to other movies. It’s less the influences from the Polanski films and many of the other, generally older films that find their way into Salles’ movie than it is the things that are just altogether too close to recent films.
The grubbiness of the setting, the problem of finding any kind of an affordable apartment, etc., have roots in The Tenant. The general sense of things being left to rot has its roots in Repulsion. The idea that the apartment upstairs is empty — despite signs to the contrary — is very like Michael Winner’s The Sentinel. And so on. But these are roots, and the movie grows from them.
However, when the little girl stands transfixed, staring at the ceiling, it feels straight out of The Grudge. The ghost taking over her hand and making her paint not only feels like it’s out of The Ring, it is. And worst of all, the fact that Nakata himself had appropriated the solution of this story and used it in The Ring Two makes the gentler, but otherwise almost identical ending of Salles’ film both predictable and unsatisfying. Salles almost recovers from this blow with his final scenes, which are very unusual in their benign, almost uplifting approach — but not quite. That’s especially unfortunate, because when at its best, Dark Water is the most interesting horror film to come along in a good while. Alas, it’s too often not quite at its best to be able to ring the gong.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic subject matter, frightening sequences, disturbing images and brief language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke