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Dark Water (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 08 July 2005
Following in the wake of “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” here’s another American remake of a Japanese horror movie—this time directed by a Brazilian, Walter Salles who helmed the very good “Motorcycle Diaries.” This time, though, he’s tripped up by the script. The movie is slow, badly structured, undeveloped and confusing; enough loose ends are left dangling to weave a very nice quilt.

More and more, I’m beginning to think that there’s a fundamental difference between contemporary Japanese horror movies and those made in the west (i.e., the U.S., Canada, England, France, Italy, etc.). The Asian horror films are based on effects; not special effects, but individual shocks, terrors, frissons. The causes are sketched in. Western horror movies are about the causes with the story built on their effects.

That is, story logic is not of primary concern in Japanese horror, and it works all the better for shrugging it off, or dealing with it in a perfunctory manner.

In Western horror, though, logic is of primary concern: we have learned to expect that things will be explained in a way that makes sense, that there won’t be details left hanging. These American remakes of recent Japanese thrillers tend to eschew logic because the original did, but they look like movies where we feel secure in knowing that we will eventually understand why events happened as they did. In this case, we’re reassured by the presence of a bona fide Oscar winner in the lead, Jennifer Connelly (Supporting Actress for “A Beautiful Mind”). But a great deal never coalesces.

Connelly is Dahlia, originally from Seattle—an opening scenes shows her as a young girl waiting the arrival of her mother—now living in New York, in the process of divorcing her angry husband Kyle (Dougray Scott). She has to find an apartment for her and her eight-year-old daughter, the grave, big-eyed Ceci (Ariel Gade, relaxed and convincing). She finds a place on Roosevelt Island, which I’m sure tells those familiar with New York a great deal, but to the rest of us means little or nothing. The apartment building, about 30 years old, is two blocks from the island’s first-rate school and not far from the tram that takes people over to Manhattan. (On which Spidey and the Green Goblin duked it out in the first Spider-Man movie.)

Slightly sleazy building manager Murray (John C. Reilly) shows Dahlia and the initially reluctant Ceci the apartment, which needs repairs, including patching a big wet spot in the bedroom building. The building super, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), is distant and disdainful, though not outright hostile. After Ceci wanders up to the alarmingly unfenced roof, graced with a huge, old-fashioned water tank of a cistern, she becomes eager to move in.
Strange things, often involving water, begin happening. Ceci develops an imaginary friend she calls Natasha. Her warm, welcoming teacher (Camryn Manheim) is a little concerned about this, and suggests Dahlia deal with it somehow. But things keep getting weirder—the wet spot grows, leading Dahlia to investigate the upstairs apartment, only to find it abandoned (though with all the belongings and furniture still there) and flooded. Is it the work of a couple of smart-ass teenagers from a lower floor? Does it have anything to do with the people who used to live there? We see their photo on the wall—a troubled-looking man, a frightened woman and a little girl.

Stuff happens. But unfortunately, not very much, and not very quickly. Furthermore, the weird events don’t link together in anything like a recognizable pattern. And there’s no escalation; the events reach one level of weirdness and stay there until 20 minutes or so from the end of the movie. Event D does not happen because of events A-C, and has no obvious link to event E. For example, Dahila uses the laundry room; she switches to a second washer when the first acts up, but then the second does, too. Why the laundry? Eventually, we learn all the problems have to do with a ghost, but what result was the ghost seeking in screwing around with Dahlia’s laundry? None at all; it happens because it’s icky and creepy and spooky, no other reason.

Connelly is a very good actress, and she’s fine throughout this film, but she can’t make headway against the muddle of the script. (By Rafael Yglesias, from the screenplay by Hideo Nakata and Taka Ichise, which was based on the novel Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara by Kôji Suzuki.) Creepy scenes abound, but they don’t get anywhere. Toward the end, things pick up a little, but the ending is such a horrendous downer that it’s not likely those who reach it will welcome it.

It’s an uncomfortable blend of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Ring,” “The Other” and “Sliver.” It’s resoundingly urban, but there’s no attempt to relate the horror Dahlia and Ceci are facing in the building with the idea that the building is in a city. This same stuff could be happening in a remote farmhouse.

At times, the writer makes an attempt to link stuff together. When she was a child, Dahlia was abused by her father and abandoned by her alcoholic mother; the same thing happened to the child upstairs, and in fact the same actress plays both Dahlia as a child and the girl upstairs. But nothing much is really made of this link; for most of the movie, the ghost’s sole target seems to be Ceci—and then at the end, it’s Dahila.

The men in the movie are all creepy. But there’s no suggestion that this creepiness might be due to Dahlia’s attitude toward men. When Kyle threatens to take Ceci from her, she enlists the aid of a lawyer, Platzer (Tim Roth, so flavorful the movie springs to life whenever he’s on), who seems to be just whom she needs. However, Platzer backs out of a phone conversation by saying he has to get back to his family in the movie theater—but then we see he’s there alone. Why? What is this scene in the movie for?

Dahlia is horrified when she sees Kyle meeting with the layabout teenagers from downstairs—but we never learn why he does this. The same question has to be asked: why does this scene exist? Is it to suggest that Dahlia’s veering into outright paranoia, did Kyle just happen to bump into these vandals, IS there a plot? The movie so abounds in these weird but disconnected details that after while you just give up trying to sort them out.

Salles makes great use of the dim and dingy sets, although it doesn’t seem reasonable to me that a building that went up in the 1970s should be regarded as something on the order of the House on Haunted Hill. The movie is drenched in rainfall and water from other sources; a penultimate image of Connelly disappearing into a thunderous fall of water is beautiful and hauntingly eerie. The movie takes place mostly during the day, but it’s always either raining or overcast. The colors are subdued, and mostly thick, clay-like earthtones. It’s not only a depressing movie, the art direction alone can send you into a morbid decline.

It has a particularly good cast; the reliable John C. Reilly is almost amusing as the slightly duplicitous Mr. Murray, this movie’s version of Elisha Cook Jr. in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Pete Postlethwaite manages to keep Veeck (pr. Veck) mysterious, commonplace, reluctantly helpful and a real creep, all at the same time.

There’s not a moment of lightness or joy in the film, not even in the well-played mother-daughter scenes between Connelly and Gade (who’s a real find). They might reach a moment of happiness from time to time, but mostly it’s grim and unpleasant like the movie itself. The cast is fine, there are very suspenseful scenes, and it’s well-produced on what must have been a somewhat limited budget. But there’s no sense of a developing story, just a group of ill-linked events leading to a depressing ending.

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