DARK WATER (2005)
Director: Walter Salles

I often talk about how often Hollywood movie studios will fall back on a remake instead of thinking up something fresh. But lately, in addition to remaking established American films, the latest trend has been to venture into Asian horror cinema to find new material. After Dreamworks scored a hit with The Ring in 2002, movie studios started buying the rights to as many Asian ghost stories as they could get their hands on. But while remakes like The Ring and The Grudge rely mostly on "boo!" scares and mind-twisting visuals, the remake of Dark Water took a more cerebral, ambient path in frightening its audience. Its depiction of a mother, her daughter, and their hellish apartment wasn't exactly a box office smash, but I'd call it the most misunderstood and overlooked of the Asian horror remakes. Let's check it out, shall we?

DARK WATER (2005)Our story follows Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly), who we learn is in the midst of a heated custody battle with her former husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) over their six-year-old daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Dahlia's search for a new home for her and her daughter leads her to a tenement on Roosevelt Island, where the building's landlord Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) shows her an apartment on the ninth floor. Ceci immediately proclaims the apartment "yucky," a description that hits the nail on the head. The place goes far beyond "fixer-upper" territory, looking like nothing short of a dilapidated hellhole in need of massive renovation if not out-and-out demolition. Not only is the apartment an eyesore, but it's also too small. So small, in fact, that when he can't find the second bedroom he promised, Mr. Murray proclaims the living room is a "dual-use" room. But the rent is in Dahlia's price range and it's only two blocks from a good school, so Dahlia takes it.

But as the days go on, more and more problems with the apartment begin to reveal themselves, mainly with the shoddy plumbing. A leak has caused a nasty black stain in the bedroom ceiling and water from the faucets often turns dark and viscous, yet Mr. Murray and cantankerous superintendent Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) repeatedly give Dahlia the runaround regarding it. And while her cramped apartment seemingly falls apart around her, so does Dahlia's life. She finds herself haunted by the mystery surrounding a missing child named Natasha Rimsky (Perla Haney-Jardine), while at the same time Ceci begins talking to an imaginary friend named Natasha that she insists is real. Dahlia's fragile grip on sanity is also challenged by horrible nightmares about her unloving junkie mother and the escalating bitterness in the custody battle over Ceci. As she begins to observe more and more bizarre occurrences around the building, Dahlia soon begins to question whether she really is losing her mind, or if her new residence is also occupied by a ghost looking to make its presence known.

Like The Ring, Dark Water is based on Hideo Nakata's adaptation of a short story by Japanese novelist Kji Suzuki. Unfortunately, thanks to misleading marketing on the part of Touchstone Pictures, most people were expecting a Ring-esque movie, but got a psychological ghost story. Although Dark Water sadly wasn't a blockbuster, it holds firm as an extremely well-made film that deserves more attention that it got. Though many of the notes are the same, this movie's song is played much differently than its cinematic brethren. Watching Dark Water and The Ring Two back to back, it's obvious to me that Dark Water is everything that the Ring sequel should have been: suspenseful, brilliantly acted, and downright spooky.

Brazilian director Walter Salles, who previously helmed foreign films like The Motorcycle Diaries, makes the most of his first English-language film. As I said above, Salles doesn't rely on cheap scares or musical stingers to frighten his audience, instead opting to use a tense ambience that pushes the movie's sense of dread. While the movie isn't exactly "scary" in the traditional sense, Salles draws out many scenes, making us anticipate when something would pop around a corner, which can oftentimes be scarier than the payoff itself. The movie is slow and subtle, and this tactic proves effective with the story being told, with the dramatic aspects standing out most of all. Similarly, I found the screenplay penned by Rafael Yglesias to be most effective when concentrating on being mysterious and dramatic, not scary. Though there are a handful of unresolved subplots and things that seem out of place, I found much of what Yglesias wrote worked. The relationship between Dahlia and Ceci is a believable one, and if that heartwrenching denouement at the end doesn't get to you, you don't have a soul. The movie also boasts an outstanding score by Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, melancholy music that is befitting of the movie's tone.

Where the movie truly succeeds is its cast. Jennifer Connelly is absolutely superb, giving what I felt to be one of the best horror movie performances I've seen in a long time. Connelly's performance is quite gripping, making we the viewer truly care about her as she slowly descends into madness. While I don't think that the movie truly answers if Dahlia's mental problems are being caused by supernatural means or a combination of stress and her own torturous childhood, Connelly's performance makes us feel for her. Meanwhile, young Ariel Gade is both creepy and adorable as Connelly's daughter, very rarely venturing into the usual hackneyed "odd kid that talks to the dead" that you see in every ghost story nowadays. Both John C. Reilly and Pete Postlewaithe are wonderfully wicked as the manipulative landlord and stubborn superintendent, and though it's a small and thankless part, Tim Roth is entertaining as Dahlia's odd yet good-hearted lawyer.

Sadly, Dark Water struggled to find an audience during its stay in theaters. Perhaps it was due to people disappointed with the trailers and TV commercials promising one thing, and the movie delivering another. Perhaps it was due to the resentment that fans of Asian horror have for remakes. It could be either of those things, or it could be both of those things. I don't really know. But I do hope that it can find an audience on the home video market, where it could join movies like Stir of Echoes on the list of smaller, more intimate movies that often go unappreciated by mainstream audiences yet strengthen the genre through its efforts. Yes, Dark Water does have flaws, but with a remarkable cast and excellent direction, I'll gladly give it four stars and a hearty seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****


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