Dark Water Review

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Troubled divorcée Dahlia Williams (Connelly) moves into a rundown apartment with her young daughter Ceci (Gade), desperately seeking solace from an acrimonious custody battle with her ex-husband (Scott). But the damp patch in the bedroom ceiling is only t


With The Grudge and two Ring movies translating their shrieks into ker-chings at the US box office, it’s hardly surprising that Hollywood’s been peering hard at the Japanese horror genre in search of further decent remake material. And Disney could have done far worse than plunge its chunky white gloves into Ringu director Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water. With its dank, overcast urban setting, Nakata’s original is an effective little mix of chills and intrigue — even if it does lack Ringu’s outright scares while pretty much offering more of the same (circular threats, watery motifs, sinister ghost girls with lank, inky hair). Put simply, it’s good enough to warrant a fresh take, but flawed enough for improvements to be made.

Combine that with an American pedigree that reeks of quality and, at first glance at least, Dark Water should be the strongest Asian-horror remake to date. We have Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly taking the lead as the fraught, haunted mother, supported by some cast-iron character actors: John C. Reilly as a patronising, sleazy landlord, Tim Roth as a hobo lawyer, Pete Postlethwaite as a surly, monosyllabic caretaker. Most excitingly, helming duties have gone to Walter Salles, the Brazilian brain behind arthouse breakouts Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries (not to mention his producing credit on City Of God), here making his North American movie debut.

Treating Dark Water as an intimate and sensitively sustained human drama, one which concerns the travails of a single mother in a harsh environment, Salles has proven himself the perfect man for the job. He’s certainly a good match for his leading lady. Dahlia is a woman with issues, specifically abandonment issues, and under Salles’ steady guidance Connelly keeps her overprotectiveness on the right side of mania. With the vein in Connelly’s worry-line-etched forehead looking fit to burst throughout, the neurosis is apparent as an acute, internal throb which occasionally mutates into a migrane (accompanied by a discomfiting screech on the soundtrack) — not as the kind of twitchy, shouty performance you’d expect from a lesser actress.

But is she a scream queen? Well, therein lies Dark Water’s key problem: it’s just not scary, so there’s little to warrant any screaming. Connelly’s done misery many times before (Requiem For A Dream, House Of Sand And Fog, A Beautiful Mind — she even spent most of Hulk weeping), and it would have been refreshing to see her exercise her lungs in a big, fun, jump-out-of-your-skin Hollyhorror. Yet that’s not what she or anyone else involved has set out to do. That it consciously avoids most genre-cliché pitfalls is both Dark Water’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness. On the one hand, it’s intelligent and beautifully bereft of any cats leaping out of shadows to orchestral blasts; on the other, it’s just not entertaining, at least not in the popcorny, audience-pleasing sense.

Of course, ghost stories don’t have to be out-and-out horrors, but even, say, The Sixth Sense summoned up a few gut-freezing set-pieces. Here it’s more a case of atmosphere-building, from the gloomy, snot-green-and-grey set dressing, to the harsh, ghost-child whispers. Yet there’s no overwhelming sense of threat, of the kind of primal terror that you’d imagine would come from encountering a malevolent supernatural entity in a rundown apartment block. Salles is undoubtedly a great director, but if Dark Water makes one thing clear, it’s that he just isn’t a great horror director.

Interesting and unsettling, but never terrifying. Best viewed as a family drama-cum-Tale Of The Unexpected rather than a full-on horror.