For those folks who didn’t ride the short but powerful J-Horror juggernaut a few years back but tend to catch the American remakes, “Dark Water” may be confusing. So let me clear things up: no, this is not simply “The Ring Two” with a dye-job – although a side-by-side comparison of the two is quite fascinating. We’ve got a single mother who takes her kid and moves away. We’ve got the mother slowly losing her grip on reality, and the authority figures around her coming to view her as unfit to raise the child. The child gets hospitalized and taken away from the mother, she freaks out, and she has to climb into a well and find a dead little girl in order to free her kid from the grips of evil. There’s a dripping-wet final-act bathtub confrontation, and the hair in the drain is finally cleared.
Now, the similarities between “Dark Water” and “The Ring Two” aren’t entirely coincidental, and are in fact an interesting story in their own right (and a far more original one than found in “Water”): Hideo Nakata directed the original “Water” in Japan, from the novel by Koji Suzuki. Years prior, Nakata had essentially launched the entire “wet little girls with black hair” subgenre with his explosive “The Ring”, which was also based on a book by Suzuki (he also directed the sequel). In a strange twist of events, following his directing the original “Dark Water”, he was tapped by Dreamworks to direct the American remake of “The Ring Two”. Before you can say “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Nakata turned in an American “Ring Two” that bore absolutely no resemblance to his Japanese “Ring Two” but bore a striking similarity to his Japanese “Dark Water”, which was due for the remake treatment in less than a year by another studio and director. And now (after a curiously delayed release) we have the American “Dark Water”, which does its best to escape comparison to “Ring Two” despite being essentially the same exact movie set on a different coast (even though this film also begins in Seattle).
And while there is a distinct difference between the two films, it’s not exactly thrilling – “Dark Water” is much more a film about an overtaxed mother at risk of losing her child than a horror movie – in fact, it’s more “Kramer vs. Kramer” than “Jennifer vs. the Dead Kid in the Sink”. The oppressive, incredibly unpleasant atmosphere (due partly to the cinematographers and designers and partly to the legitimately grubby reality of Roosevelt Island – parts of it, anyway) and brutally realistic portrayal of a nasty divorce bring the plight of Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) as she desperately tries to maintain custody of her daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade) a desperate, ominous weight that a straight drama would never be able to achieve without the help of accepted genre conventions (the constant rain, the bleak environs, the justified paranoia that comes with moving into a haunted apartment – or, again, to Roosevelt Island). Determined to build a stable home for Ceci, Dahlia takes an apartment on the island near a good school and sets upon getting their life back in order now that Daddy lives in Jersey City with his mistress. The realtor, Mr. Murray (a wonderfully slippery John C. Reilly), obviously has little concern for his tenants’ well-being, and handyman Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) is ornery at best, negligent or downright dangerous at worst. Dahlia and Ceci enjoy a pleasant moving-in montage, but danger rears its ugly head soon enough as a dark water stain appears in the ceiling of the bedroom and begins to spread.
Soon Ceci is talking to an “imaginary” friend, Dahlia is having migraines and flashbacks to her abusive mother (Elina Lowensohn, whom I love and had completely forgotten about since “Nadja”), and her ex is inching closer to gaining custody of their daughter thanks to Dahlia’s rapidly degenerating mental condition. But what’s with the little girl’s backpack that keeps appearing and disappearing around the building? And the strange footsteps in the empty apartment above? And the pools of water and the hair in the sink and the creepy face in the washing machine – are these hallucinations, or is Dahlia’s ex enlisting the help of local teens to drive her batty?
Well, that would be a fun mystery to try to solve – had the filmmakers not given us the answer in the first 10 minutes. Yes, much like the original film (which I found plodding and incredibly derivative), we are told in the opening scenes that there is indeed a ghost girl tromping about in her wet Mary Janes, leaving puddles all over the place and causing mischief. So when the strange things start to happen, we’re several steps ahead of the characters – and waiting for them to catch up to us gets real old, real fast. This is a big problem with most ghost movies, in my opinion – why let the audience in on the secret, but not the characters? I’m not clear on the intention behind giving your audience the advantage and then letting your characters slowly uncover the secret – can it be anything other than frustrating to watch? And especially considering that in “Dark Water” the ghost child really isn’t the main concern (it’s really much more about Dahlia’s grasp of motherhood), why bother planting her in our heads in the first place? It would have been far more interesting to be left wondering whether or not Dahlia was losing her mind or if her ex really was trying to mess with her – as it is, the pat “Yep – ghost girl in the pipes. Better watch it!” presentation is flat, especially considering how many times it’s been done.
But again, the real drama at hand (Dahlia’s spiral into batshittiness; the nasty machinations of divorce and its potential toll on children) is quite palpable and sobering, and Connelly pulls off the very prominent central performance very well. I actually felt quite bad for her – and not just because I’ve lived in New York City slums before. Her relationship with her daughter is very natural and convincing, and it’s all the more frightening when things start to fall apart between them. Tim Roth is comforting but completely underused as Dahlia’s lawyer (he doesn’t even appear until halfway through), Dougray Scott (“MI:2”) is near-unrecognizable as the snarky ex, and Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”) is around to impart information as Ceci’s earnest but ultimately forgettable teacher. Director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) seems to work best in moments of tense dialogue, and it’s these bits of conflict that work best – the ghost mystery is such an afterthought that it hardly even registers. When the last-act fakeout and climax arrive (very “Ring”, again), it almost seems as though they brought someone else on-board (even Nakata, perhaps) to turn on the hoses and convince the audience that they’ve actually been sitting through a horror movie for 2 hours. The ending is incredibly bleak and creepy, which may be consistent with the film, but it sure isn’t fun to watch. And while I actually think the movie works better than the Japanese original due to its relentless focus on Dahlia’s unraveling, it’s still just too familiar territory, overall. In the end, lacking the freshness of an original ghost story, “Dark Water” is just that: dark, damp, and a bit stagnant.