Please note: the screenshots in this review are taken from the movie trailers to be found online. They are therefore not of the normal Snowblood Apple quality and will be eventually replaced. This is also the reason for no wallpaper being available at this time. This review contains massive spoilers - read at your own peril!
For a review of the original Japanese movie, click here.
Directed by Walter Salles, 2005, 105 minutes. Starring Jennifer Connelly, John C Reilly, Ariel Gade, Tim Roth, Pete Postlethwaite and Dougray Scott.
Hideo Nakata's 2002 Japanese Dark Water stands amongst the pantheon of movies on this site, distinguished in its greatness and still one of the most well-crafted horror movies we've seen, ever. Inevitably, then, some chancer – amongst them, remake über-producer Roy Lee – was going to remake it for the US and (to an extent) the international market, relocate it to the States and, probably, homogenise it to such an extent that any spark in the original would be wiped out in a swathe of cheap jumps and crass sentimentality.
But then, this is Dark Water we're talking about. It's a bit like trying to cover Stairway to Heaven – no matter how hard you try to screw with it, a spark of the genius of the original would probably stay. It's not like Ju-on, whose initial (and unoriginal) premise worked well in Japan but which singularly failed to survive the trans-Pacific transfer. Chuck in an illustrious cast – Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, Pete Postlethwaite – and an already distinguished South American director in Walter Salles, and even before the movie's release, the portents were good. And, despite what you might have read elsewhere, Dark Water USA is damn good. Here's why.
Dahlia Williams (Connelly) and her daughter Cecilia / Ceci are looking for a cheap apartment close to Manhattan, after splitting up with adulterous husband/dad Kyle. A massive, brutalist apartment complex on Roosevelt Island seems the only option, even though Ceci is none too keen on moving away from the city. The divorce has been particularly bitter, the sparks flying between the couple in mediation meetings as they bicker about Dahlia's mental state and exactly who should have custody of their daughter.
At the apartment complex, Dahlia meets with the landlord Mr Murray and the rather sinister janitor Mr Veeck (a marvellously monosyllabic Pete Postlethwaite). As Murray, Dahlia and Ceci go up to the ninth floor, Veeck spots a ghostly figure in the lift with them, holding Dahlia's hand...
Despite shortcomings with the apartment – no living room, dour location, and the flat looking decidedly tired, in addition to a damp patch in the ceiling of her daughter's new room – Dahlia really has little choice but to take it. As she's sorting out the paperwork, Ceci goes for an explore, makes it onto the roof and finds a red Hello Kitty bag lying underneath a huge water tank. The pair take it down to Veeck, who says if no-one's claimed it in a week, Ceci can have it as well as the contents. This changes the previously reluctant girl's mind about the place – she's now keen to stay.
As the pair move in four days later, all's well. Ceci's been enrolled in a good school, Dahlia's found a job (albeit a boring one) close to home with convenient hours. The only snag is the still-growing damp patch on Ceci's ceiling which both Murray and Veeck seem reluctant to fix. The lift is now getting dodgy too – someone's burned out some of the buttons with a cigarette and it's developed a nasty habit of jumping to the tenth floor with no warning and when no-one has summoned it. The plumbing is playing up, with foul, dank water spurting out of the taps as well as, in one case, some hair as well. And, to cap it all off, Dahlia thinks the "abandoned" flat above has occupants as she's heard some voices late at night.
She goes to investigate apartment 10F, to find the door open, the floor flooded and the taps spewing the same fetid water into overflowing bathtubs and sinks. Reporting this to Veeck, who just happens to be almost behind her, he blames a couple of "punks" from lower down the building who know there's no-one living there at the minute and who have a spare key. Grateful she's sorted the problem, Veeck fixes the damp patch for Dahlia.
At school, Ceci is now talking to and playing with an imaginary friend. She's called Natasha, she says, and is the same age as her. Dahlia's now starting to have nightmares about her mother (who abandoned her) and is popping pills with alarming regularity. As her mental state deteriorates, she obsesses more over the "punks", the red bag, Natasha, her husband's apparent attempts to drive her insane... Is there really a ghostly presence in the apartment block, or is it just a figure of her imagination?
Let's get this straight. This iteration of Dark Water is neither a horror movie nor a suspense story, despite the way it's been marketed. That's probably why it's failed to perform at the box office. Granted, Salles has seemingly felt obligated to both stay true to the spirit of the original and (probably) bend to studio pressure by putting in the odd jump scene here and there. But to call this film a horror movie would be like calling Kubrick's 2001 mere space opera – there's much more going on under the skin. While Nakata's original was a conventional horror, here Salles has created a much more philosophical work, a depiction of the eternal paranoia of motherhood, and the way the obsession with the safety of your child above everything else can drive a seemingly well-adjusted mother into a massive breakdown.
The sappy, superficial message of this film – mom and dad, please don't argue, for the sake of the kids – seems as tacked on as the end sequence with the teenaged Ikuko did in the original. What is fascinating though is that the entire film is shown entirely from Dahlia's point of view – there's not a scene that she's not in. We see how events affect her directly, and while superficially she seems to cope, what is clear is that Salles is showing her slowly unravel. Her "lost day" – shrugged off as a reaction to pills she's been taking – and the confusion in the timeline that follows is really key here. It's a strong sign that she is on the teetering edge of a breakdown, that things are about to go badly wrong, that the conventional ghost story which we as the viewer have been presented with may be more than meets the eye. It immediately throws into doubt everything that has happened, and is about to happen. You could argue schizophrenia (hallucinations, mood swings), you could suggest stress-induced manic depression, you could place the blame firmly on her pill-popping. The cause is left uncertain – it really doesn't matter.
Arguably, Ceci's troubles with her imaginary friend could be in reality Dahlia's fragile mental state interpreting a normal childhood rite of passage into something that fits her distorted world view. And the conclusion – Dahlia's ultimate sacrifice to protect her child – could have a number of interpretations, suicide being just one of them. What's clear though is that neither Kyle nor Ceci seem particularly surprised or upset at the final conclusion, as if they'd almost expected that it would end like this.
In a movie where every performance is strong, Jennifer Connelly's stands out. Given that the film completely revolves around her character, it has to stand or fall on whether her portrayal of Dahlia is credible. It is, and you're left in no doubt that the movie would be greatly weakened without her presence. If anything, Tim Roth and Pete Postlethwaite are under used, particularly as both Roth's deadbeat lawyer Platzer and Postlethwaite's janitor Veeck are complex characters with intricate backstories and motives. Even the potential greatest irritation – a Hollywood child actor – is circumvented with Ariel Gade's understated Ceci.
It would have been so easy to do a straight lift of the Japanese original for this, the strongest of the US Asian Extreme remakes thus far. Let's face it, both The Grudge and The Ring were almost shot-for-shot rehashes of their superior predecessors. To their credit though, Salles and his team, while staying true to the source material, have created something just as taut as the original, while making their movie more resonant. That said, Salles is apparently refusing to promote his work, as it's been hacked about by the studio: if you compare some of the screenshots from the trailers on this page to the finished article, there's at least one storyline and one key scene which appear to have been lost. I'd hope that soon a Director's Cut is issued with these restored, as well as the roles of Murray, Veeck, Platzer, the punks and the strange guy from the launderette being fleshed more - something I can't help suspecting were probably in an original cut. All are fascinating characters in their own right, and there are hints in the movie especially that Murray and Veeck are complicit in Natasha's ultimate fate - an issue which is then dropped almost as soon as it's mentioned. Why does Platzer work in his car? Are the punks actually in league with Kyle to drive her mad? And is the smoking launderette guy also responsible for some of the stranger events which take place - could he be Natasha's father?
Do not come to this movie expecting The Ring style shocks and plot twists. This is not a movie with an easy, multiplex-compatible resolution, despite the reasonably conventional opening hour. Instead, visit it as a complex character study of a woman slowly losing her mind which may (or may not, depending on your interpretation) contain supernatural elements. This is one of those films where you get out what you put in; make sure you engage your brain on entry.
Extra note February 2006: The USA "Unrated" DVD does indeed add extra scenes, albeit not very many and the run time is only extended by a minute or so. Included is the "water running down the walls" scene which featured in the trailer (and therefore our screenshots) but not in the theatrical release. While this "Unrated" version of the movie does add extra detail, it doesn't add any background material of the sort I hoped for in my review. Nevertheless, it's still a very fine movie, and definitely stronger than the theatrical cut.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 9/10
Ceci: not as cute as Ikuko
Natasha: not as slimy as Mitsuko
Walter Salles: did a damn good job, didn’t he?
*** The best remake so far – 100% recommended ***
Discussion about this movie can be found here on our forums.
We've tried to avoid straightforward reviews here - you can find them dotted all over the net, as Dark Water's a mainstream Hollywood movie.
http://darkwater.movies.go.com/ - The official website
http://www.futuremovies.co.uk/filmmaking.asp?ID=127 - interview with Jennifer Connelly
http://www.cinecon.com/news.php?id=0506161 - and another, including her views on Asian horror cinema
http://www.mooviees.com/7267/1852-production_notes - information about the film, including a statement from director Salles