It's difficult not to want to automatically nutshell Dark Water, released theatrically in July of 2005 only a few months after the sequel to The Ring hit screens, as just another in the line of Americanized, foreign fright yarns from which it borrows so many of its genre elements. I want to say that director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) did more than just rehash Hideo Nakata's (The Ring, The Ring Two) 2002 film of the same name, substituting the homespun Asian tapestry with familiar settings and the requisite cultural signifiers in an effort to exploit yet another successful Far East chiller. Well, thanks to some powerfully subtle showmanship by the director and both his above and below the line players, I can.
By now, horror fans and non-fans alike are well aware of the influence and increasing popularity of Japanese horror films (known in the film buff vernacular as J-Horror) evidenced most notably by a slew of successful Hollywood remakes that have made even the most seasoned horror aficionados feel wet behind the ears by introducing new methods of manipulating imagery to ice our spines. Directors such as Nakata, Shimizu Takashi (Ju-on: The Grudge) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo, remade as Pulse) have cast their spooky kabuki spell on American audiences, and in some ways redefined how we think about the forces of guardianship and parental guilt in our collective consciousness. I won't bother to construct a mini thesis on the recent pervasiveness of Japanese entertainment along Western shores, but not since Anime began working its way into popular animated cartoons such as "Speed Racer", and more recently into a glut of video games and feature-length animated series (I'll try and keep "Pokeman" out of this, frightening for a number of irrelevant reasons) has American food for thought been given such a mega-dose of cultural wasabi. If The Exorcist and The Omen taught us that mothers will risk their lives for their children regardless of how many hooves and horns they grow, and Carrie and The Others taught us that our selfish, misguided parenting will eventually come back to haunt us, then Dark Water and its predecessors are here to say that, regardless of the extent of your love and devotion, you might still be at risk.
Briefly, Dark Water tells the story of single mother Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly of Labyrinth, Dark City and The Hulk fame among many others) trying to raise her daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade of ABC's "Invasion") in the alienating, almost penal confines of Manhattan's ugly baby sister, Roosevelt Island. Hard enough as that sounds, she's also in the middle of a messy custody battle that she's in danger of losing if she doesn't get her neurotic, mother/daughter act together. Dahlia's ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott, Deep Impact, Mission Impossible II, Perfect Creature) is livid that Dahlia won't move near him in Jersey City to make joint custody easier, and is filling his lawyer's quiver with as many arrows from Dahlia's past and present circumstances as possible to shoot down her plans. Its not that Dahlia isn't a loving and devoted mother, but apparently her history as an abandoned and abused child of a junkie mother revisits her in the form of crippling migraines, terrifying dreams and a somewhat unhinged perspective on dealing with her pain. It doesn't help that, since the move, little "Ceci" has developed an imaginary friend who we come to find out once lived in the apartment above them until she, too, was abandoned by both of her parents. She may or may not be real, but what becomes pretty obvious from the start is that little Natasha in 10F isn't at all happy with watching her doppleganger below enjoy the love she was denied. Soon, she begins to let the new tenants know of her disapproval, and her subsequent plans for surrogacy by leaking water into their apartment via a festering dark stain in the corner of their bedroom.
I don't really like reviews that overly synopsize or spoil, as the hard facts of any film can easily be found by searching Wikipedia, but suffice it to say that there's a large water tower on the roof of the building that plays an important supporting role in the ensuing mystery. With this iconic image, Salles reminds us of the center of one's biological and emotional life - the heart - and how it infuses its host in an almost poisonous manner when it has become a broken, source of pain. It's also very womb-like, and distinctly calls to mind other analogous relationships between mother figures and their offspring such as that of a big city seemingly indifferent to the natural world that it displaces, and in this case, the tiny satellite island where our main characters try to make sense of their plight. Alone there above the streets, the tower, like the indistinguishable numbered dwellings to which it supplies its troubled contents, is another comment on our insignificance and anonymity in a world segregated, not just by our being transplanted in the midsts of so much diversity, but also by the details of our suffering. And this is how I would suggest one watch Dark Water: with a sense of wonder as to what's going on beneath the details floating on the surface. In the DVD's special features section, Salles (who lived over a theater as a child in his native Brazil) tells us that he's not interested so much in cultivating the traditional elements of horror as he is in supporting the strong, thematic through-line of a film irrespective of the genre in which it lives. And he delivers in this regard, crafting a taunt tale of umbilical responsibility that culminates in a surprisingly affecting, and I must say, tear-jerking conclusion. Short of big, traditional scares yet long on a tastefully touching treatment of story and theme, the dread is serviceably delivered even if it does become washed out by the many similar films that have come before it. Dropped are the budgets for white-faced, enfant terribles spiderwalking the ceiling in favor of adept, experienced actors who go the extra mile to involve the viewer in their grim realities. Despite some well-worn camera tricks that tip us off as to something possibly otherworldly and malevolent behind the whole mess (and believe me, these are some drenched and disheveled sets) its fairly obvious who is tapping into the stream of consciousness here. And like the awareness of a slow drip somewhere unreachable, the viewer can feel annoyingly hindered by an insistence of these limp, visual clues and a deliberate pace. Luckily however, one becomes so engrossed in Connelly's character's efforts to resist her demons that we're willing to suspend any obvious conclusions we might have about where the story is going. So like a leaky pipe in the wall, it works, even when it doesn't.
Which leads me to a few strong reasons why this film is worth revisiting, or if you missed it, initially investing one's time. Most horror fans won't care, but it depresses me a little that in this day and age a film like Dark Water would never have put Jennifer Connelly on stage holding a little gold statue. There have been the odd exceptions in the past where horror films were considered suitable arenas for thesps to flex their range of wares, mostly in the open-minded 70's, but luckily for her, Connelly has acted in other high-profile vehicles that have seen her justly recognized. Similarly, in the aforementioned The Others, Nicole Kidman gave a profound performance as a victim of unseen forces threatening her light-sensitive brood only to find herself a different kind of victim in real life due to a palpable lack of, one can only assume, "Academy respectability". Of course, she eventually made out okay, too. And while relegating horror to the B-bin is nothing new, I suppose its good that most die-hard fans won't give it a second's thought. Angela Bettis (Tool Box Murders, May, Sick Girl) is another special talent who carries on the tradition of actresses in horror films that never seem to receive commensurate industry recognition, and in a way the passing on her star turns provides fans with a certain "fringe pride" that, in horror, seems a natural and marketable fit. But helped, I suppose, by being perennially center stage in a world full of tragic oppression, women are putting in some intensely satisfying performances in horror these days. As sex objects to be brutalized, they're an evergreen staple of dark cinema, but even long before Pamela Sue Voorhees started slicing up camp counselors, horror films have given voice to empowered mother figures who champion, and at the same time, transcend traditional female roles and motivations. It is comforting to know that, like Alien's Ripley ripping a new one in the deep space PTA, the heroic power of the maternal instinct borne of horrific circumstance continues to assert itself in theaters with the rewarding lack of sappy patronization that I find unique to scare fare.
But Connelly's not the only one here that digs in. John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, Gangs of New York, Magnolia) as the duplicitous building super is on the nose with his depiction and makes the most of some small, but key moments. Same goes for Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Planet of the Apes) as Dhalia's lawyer who, in lying about his devotion to a family that either doesn't exist or from which he has somehow been separated, maintains a creepy, yet credible affinity for his client's dilemma. Therese DePrez's production design is inspired and assists in building the sense of despair and alienation so critical to the story and performances, and the adaptation of Nakata's script (based on a short story by Koji Suzuki) by Rafael Yglesias, in particular the dialogue, is sharp and effectively understated. And I've already alluded to it but it bears repeating, the last few frames of this picture leaves one with a melancholic hangover the likes of which few mainstream films have managed of late.
Rare do I ever go beyond my job of reviewing a film to endorsing it outright, as that can be a slippery slope of varying tastes and thresholds of pain. Still, I feel compelled to do so with Dark Water - not, however, without some reservation. As dependent as the the story is on some convenient narrative parallels and conventional creeps, the ending is revelatory, not so much as a surprising twist in the character's journey, but in its faithfulness to its purpose. Mothers not only go through hell to protect their own, but as today's broken family environment dictates, they do so in a way that asks us to ruminate about their instinctual selflessness and dead-on moral compass. Dare I say, this is an "important" horror film? Maybe not. Having seen Dark Water over a year after my last J-Horror remake, I may have been more forgiving of its obvious flaws. Let's just leave it at this: Salles also mentions picking up some genre tips from watching one of Roman Polanski's most famous films. In telling Dahlia's story with such careful compassion, I'd say he would have done Rosemary proud.