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Dark Water

Short on chills or scares, long on psychological drama

The recent spate of Asian horror films remade for English-language audiences continues with Dark Water, a remake of Hideo Nakata's second collaboration with novelist Koji Suzuki (Ringu). While the American remake of Ringu proved a sleeper hit, the sequel, The Ring 2, released this past March with Nakata making his English-language debut, under-performed at the box office (a possible warning sign that the Asian horror remake wave may be close to an end).

The first incarnation of Dark Water was a traditional exercise in psychological/ supernatural horror (i.e. a ghost story wrapped around a mystery), lacked the urgency and immediacy of his earlier film, but benefited from a stronger psychological subtext. Nakata's film followed a newly separated woman engaged in a custody battle over her daughter with her distant, egotistical soon-to-be-ex-husband. Forced to live in a dilapidated, waterlogged apartment complex, the central character faced an unseen, supernatural presence and an unresolved, traumatic childhood. Dark Water also continued Nakata's obsession with water motifs, from the "dark water" of the film's title and a rapidly growing ceiling stain to the constant, unremitting rain all of which mirror the protagonist's deteriorating state of mind.

In the American remake, Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly), in dire financial straits after the recent breakup of her marriage, accepts an inexpensive apartment inside a nearly empty, rundown apartment building on Roosevelt Island, near Manhattan. Dahlia's points of reference (and human contact) include her daughter, Cecilia (Ariel Gade), the used-car-salesman masquerading as a building manager, Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly), the surly, monosyllabic building superintendent, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), her ex, Kyle (Dougray Scott), her attorney, Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth, in an underwritten role), and her daughter's elementary school teacher (Camryn Manheim). Cecilia, it seems, has acquired an imaginary friend with malevolent intentions. As the custody battle grows in intensity, Dahlia's fragile mental state is challenged by noise from the apparently abandoned upstairs apartment, plumbing problems, a growing water stain on her bedroom ceiling, the unrelenting rain (more fitting for Seattle or the Pacific Northwest than for New York City), and memories of a childhood trauma that return forcefully.

Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries), working from a script by Rafael Yglesias (Fearless, Death and the Maiden) closely tracks the dramatic structure of the original, even duplicating the first shot found in the original, a brief flashback from the central character's point-of-view that signals her continuing obsession with key, traumatic events from her childhood, through the epilogue, obviously added to end the original film (and the remake) on an optimistic, conciliatory note. Salles and Yglesias smartly correct a flaw found in the original epilogue, a fifteen-year flash-forward, instead flashing forward a mere few weeks.

Both the original and the remake, however, missed an opportunity to create a more emotionally meaningful, nuanced, ambiguous ending. The difference between the Japanese and American approaches to the material is most evident in the depiction of Dahlia's relationship with her mother. In the original, the central character's relationship to her mother (and her childhood) was handled obliquely (and masterfully). In the remake Salles and Yglesias insert multiple scenes or shots (some of them heavy handed) to clearly delineate Dahlia's interior state. This literalness, however, hinders Dark Water's already deliberate pace.

Despite visuals rich in atmosphere and mood (Salles and his cinematographer, Affonso Beato employ a gray-green and yellow palette, along with shadow-heavy lighting) and grounded, controlled performances (especially by Jennifer Connelly, who holds her character's hysteria in check), Salles and Yglesias borrow Nakata's "slow-burn" approach to horror, but failed to include dramatic (or visceral) payoffs.

The American remakes of Ringu and The Grudge smartly included an ample quota of jump scares for casual and serious horror fans (even if some fans complained about the "PG-13" rating). The Grudge, essentially a series of vignettes created around tense horror scenes, succeeded on a raw, visceral level in engaging audiences. Dark Water simply contains an insufficient number of jump scares or shocks to retain audience interest. Salles also inexplicably decided to show the ghost without the benefit of makeup or lighting to suggest a supernatural presence (or menace). Salles obviously prefers a domestic drama first, supernatural horror second, approach. Sadly, audiences are likely to disagree.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars