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Dark Water (2005)

Some mysteries were never meant to be solved.

Directed by:

Walter Salles

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

Haunted by memories of being abandoned as a child by her alcoholic mother, and more recently abandoned for another woman by her husband Kyle (Dougray Scott), fragile, pill-popping Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moves with her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) into a dilapidated tenement block on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Dahlia already feels hemmed in by her vicious custody battle with Kyle, but things get worse as a child’s footsteps are heard from the empty floor above, damp patches and leaks start appearing in the apartment, and Ceci grows increasingly obsessed with an imaginary friend named Natasha. Dahlia begins to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her – but there is definitely something in the water, and the building’s secrets, so far emerging only in a trickle, are soon to come pouring out in a deluge that threatens to overwhelm mother and daughter alike.

Determined not to follow in her mother’s abusive footsteps, Dahlia finds herself doomed to repeat the past, while another lost soul with a similar history treads the hallways in search of a parental love that had never previously been given – and as these parallel storylines wash up against each other, causing the usual flow of time, space and identity to ripple and double back, the result is déjà vu, that uncanny sense of having already seen something before, which has always been an essential ingredient in tales of the supernatural, and which infects ‘Dark Water’ like black dye in liquid.

The effect of déjà vu is all the stronger, however, because ‘Dark Water’ is in fact a remake of a Japanese film, refashioning for western eyes what has already been seen in Hideo Nakata’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water (2002). Déjà vu too because, with its single mother, creepy girl and watery grave, ‘Honogurai mizu no soko kara’ is not so very different, at least on the surface, from Ringu (1988), Nakata’s first adaptation of a ghost story by Kôji Suzuki, and the film which spawned Gore Verbinski’s frighteningly successful remake The Ring (2002), in turn opening the floodgates to Hollywood’s current obsession with reimagining Asian horror for second-hand thrills and easy profits. And déjà vu also because The Ring Two (2005), Nakata’s recent directorial debut in Hollywood, has already drawn deeply on the earlier ‘Honogurai mizu no soko kara’ for its climactic mother-daughter motif.

To my mind, however, Honogurai mizu no soko kara has been Nakata’s most mature film to date, knocking ‘Ringu’ out of the water with its psychological subtlety, and for the most part ‘Dark Water’, directed by Walter The Motorcycle Diaries Salles, does justice to the original. It boasts a stellar cast, including John C. Reilly as a shonky apartment manager, Pete Postlethwaite as a creepy caretaker, and Tim Roth as a good lawyer who is, in his way, as lonely as Dahlia. The soundtrack, by regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, is if anything an improvement on the original film’s, while the spectacular new location, amidst the ‘brutalist’-style edifices of Roosevelt Island, makes the perfect setting for Dahlia’s own isolated decline, surrounded on all sides by water. ‘Dark Water’ oozes the sort of moodily textured atmosphere that can only be achieved by a film soaked, as it is, in perpetual, noirish rain. It is a stylish, nuanced psychodrama, dripping with madness and melancholy, and impressive by almost any standard – except that its last act, in which blood after all proves thicker than water, is unnecessarily overexplicit, a touch melodramatic, and unconvincingly redemptive, in stark contrast to Nakata’s more elusive, far bleaker, and frankly better ending.

Salles’ tragic chiller is certainly worth seeing, and a stylish cut above most of the recent J-horror remakes – but once again it seems that the waters of Asian ghost stories flow purer, deeper and darker at source.

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It's Got: A plot awash with eerie ambiguity; dripping, atmospheric sets that will make you wish you had brought a towel along to the cinema; fine acting; and a melancholic soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti.

It Needs:

  1. to be more original – the near flawlessness of Hideo Nakatas Honogurai mizu no soko kara makes Dark Water seem a somewhat redundant (if impressive) project; and, at the risk of contradiction,
  2. to stick closer to the ending of Nakatas original, which is to my mind much more understated and fluid – and far more haunting.

Alternatives:

Hide and Seek, Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Repulsion, The Forgotten, The Ring Two, The Tenant

Summary

This psychological chiller drips with atmosphere, but compared to the Japanese original its ending is something of a damp squib.

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