Buena Vista // 2004 // 103 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 23rd, 2006
Dark water conceals darker secrets.
Dark Water is an unusual horror movie, even by Japanese horror standards. I hesitate to even slap it with a "scary movie" label, because it doesn't sit well next to my copy of A Nightmare on Elm Street -- or even The Ring, for that matter. There are hardly any true "boo" moments, and all of the violence seems to be wrought from the explosive emotions of the situation, rather than from a killer or angry ghosts. The movie must have shocked thrill-hungry teens who thought they were in for the ultimate thrill ride, and instead found themselves treading through the anxieties of a single mother questioning her sanity and the safety of her daughter. The studio mismarketed this movie from the get-go. Even I was surprised to find out Dark Water is more of a domestic drama than your typical "things go bump and drip in the night" tale. It's interesting, creepy, and emotionally satisfying; however, it is not scary.
Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream) plays Dahlia Williams, a woman going through a nasty divorce and a bitter custody battle for her daughter. Things are hard for Dahlia, and she needs to economize. She looks at a run-down apartment on Roosevelt Island, a peculiar industrial New York City neighborhood situated in the middle of the East River. Dahlia and her daughter are rightfully creeped out from the start as they are shown the rattling grungy home by a sleazy realtor (John C. Reilly, Boogie Nights), but the price is right and they give it a go. Almost immediately they notice a strange water leak that seems to be coming from the apartment directly above them. They also hear creepy noises coming from the supposedly vacant dwelling. The building maintenance guy (Pete Postlethwaite, Aeon Flux) writes all of it off to kids on drugs, and grudgingly patches up the ceiling. But as Dahlia's nasty sparring with her husband (Dougray Scott, Ever After) increases, so do the creepy events. She hires a lawyer (Tim Roth, Reservoir Dogs), who warns her that her husband will question her mental stability in the upcoming court proceedings. This is something a woman who thinks she hears ghosts does not want to hear. Even worse, now her daughter is causing concern at her new school as she conjures up a malevolent imaginary friend. It's time for everyone to dive in to the deep end, and figure out if the ghosts are real or if the frazzled single mom is just going crazy.
Dark Water works as well as it does mainly because of its star. Jennifer Connelly is one of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. She always rises above her material, and adds a desperately human element to roles that would normally be swallowed by the flashiness of a production. She battled Bowie and the Muppets in Labyrinth, delivered a stunning portrait of a junkie in Requiem for a Dream, was a torch songstress in Dark City, and embodied the best superhero girlfriend on-screen during Hulk. Connelly acts with her eyes primarily, and her body and voice follow willingly. She's strikingly beautiful, but also radiates an active intelligence as well as an endearing vulnerability. Her portrayal of Dahlia plays to all of her strengths, and allows us to see her as a mother for the first time. She refuses to be the typical horror movie victim heroine, and that keeps Dark Water firmly out of the normal territory of the genre. Connelly decides to seek out emotional truth in her role, and leaves the hysterics and butchy resolve to lesser scream queens. Dahlia works as a character, because she is acted as if she is a complete real person with strengths and flaws readily apparent in every scene. We care about her, because she has emotional depth.
The other actors are nothing to sneeze at either when you're talking about Hollywood talent. With a supporting cast of Tim Roth, John C. Reilly, Dougray Scott, Camryrn Manheim (Happiness), and Pete Postlethwaite, how could you go wrong? The entire ensemble consists of seasoned veterans who know their way around film as some of the best character actors working. It is Connelly's show, so they aren't given too many notes to play. But they are all interesting, and in an ingenious move, each character seems as unbalanced or secretive as the next. Even though the apartment is supposed to be the source of malice, there is no shortage of malevolence coming from the people around Dahlia and her daughter. If you ever question whether someone is doing all of this on purpose, you have an entire cast of suspects to choose from. They give the film a rich texture few horror films can claim. Each minor character has a twist or eccentricity to their character which only this group of thespians could deliver effectively.
On the technical end of things Dark Water is presented in fine form. The production itself is a marvel in many ways. Sets are gothic and imposing despite the industrial setting. The water leaks in the ceiling radiate moldy black evil despite the banality of the premise. The score by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) is lush and appropriately haunting. The camera moves through all of this splendor with a grace and verve that often borrows from the best Hitchcock angles. Sound design is dense and very mysteriously well pulled off. The DVD from Buena Vista preserves all of these aspects quite capably. Dark Water is a dark film, but the black levels work pretty well, and things look crisp and satisfying. The sound comes through clearly down to the last drip through what they call an "enhanced" surround track. Rather than a commentary, the DVD producers have opted for featurettes which explore each element of the film in a surprisingly detailed way. There is some scene analysis that resembles commentary tucked in there, but for the most part we get to see each participant talking about the production and their contribution to it. Fans of the movie will be extremely pleased. I'm not sure what material counts as "unrated" in this edition, because there is no nudity or gore to speak of in the entire running time. I suspect some of the dreamier water sequences were added back in to the film, because theatrically the director shunned them. Deleted scenes are just two bits that add up to little, but it's nice to see them included.
So after all my raving and praise for the cast and technical qualities, it may shock you to hear Dark Water makes for a deadly dull horror movie. It's not scary in the slightest, and as an experiment in terror it fails miserably. Personally, I'm over the whole "angry ghost girl" plot, and a plumbing problem will never scare me unless I can smell it. Dark Water goes heavy on the domestic drama, and that's where it succeeds the most. If you're ever in the mood for a supernatural take on the "chick flick"...here's your movie. But all the bombastic sounds and spooky ghost whispers can't make up for the film's lack of scares on a visceral level. Many people forget Connelly appeared in a 1985 Dario Argento horror piece called Creepers or Phenomena; his touch probably could have saved Dark Water. Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) focused on the family drama aspect of this script by Rafael Yglesias (The Ring), and the result is not all that thrilling. It's an emotionally satisfying movie, but not one that gave me goosebumps.
Japanese horror always seems to revolve around the mundane -- a videotape, a phone, or in this case a leak in the ceiling. This subgenre of horror captures the creepiness of modern life. I like the idea here, but the execution felt still and placid. Dark Water is the perfect film for people who are not fans of the genre. The actors turn in fine emotionally riveting performances, the movie looks handsome, and the story is engaging as a human drama. Just don't expect it to scare or thrill you. I ended up admiring the film for trying something different with the genre, and I appreciated the depths of the characters. Now can I please have some fear to go with that?
Guilty of not being very scary, Dark Water is sentenced to making its cable debut on the Lifetime Network. At least the emotional drama of a woman battling her inner demons to save her daughter will resonate there. Surprisingly, still waters run deep. They're just not all that scary.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurette on the Sound Design
* Analysis on Select Scenes with Director and Crew
* Making of Feature
* Featurette on the Actors
* Official Site