Atmosphere can get you really far in a horror film, and Dark Water is a good example of this. Here is a film that manages to stay watchable and somewhat entertaining just because of the creepy tone that’s established after about the twenty minute mark. It’s a remake of a Japanese horror film from 2002, and that’s not usually a good sign, but at least it’s not so awful that there’s no reason to watch it. It’s only kind of bad, mostly because, while it sets a strong scenario and atmosphere, it’s never genuinely scary.
Dark Water stars Jennifer Connolly as Dahlia, a woman going through a mediation with her husband, and trying to find a new place to live with her daughter, Ceci (Arial Gade). They pick one of the first apartments they find, the landlord of which is played by John C. Reilly and the scene when he tries to sell them on what’s clearly a dud of a building is genuinely funny. That takes us to the aforementioned twenty-minute mark, the point when things start to go wrong.
They notice a leak in the ceiling. The elevator doesn’t work all that well. The doorman (Pete Postlethwaite) is creepy. The door to the rooftop is unlocked, and Ceci finds a Hello Kitty backpack there, despite no other children living in the building — Reilly’s character claims that they’ve all grown up, despite one of the best schools in the area being just two blocks away. This building is a creepy place, and if you’re just getting a new apartment, might serve as a warning sign and cautionary tale. Look out for these things when searching for a new place to live.
Oh, and Ceci also now has an invisible friend named Natasha. It’s not exactly uncommon for children under a certain age to have one of these, or so the school teacher tells Dahlia, but in a horror movie like this, you know there’s going to be more to it than that. Are there any horror movies in which a child has an imaginary friend and it really is just that? I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but that would work well as a red herring, don’t you think?
It’s fun to see all of the delusions — if they really are delusions — going through Dahlia’s mind. We see water flood her room, we see her negligent mother appear at her every now and then, and so on. She’s on pills that are supposed to help with migraines, but they seem to knock her out and cause her nightmares. The film is filled with imagery that will be unnerving to some. The only thing it misses is actual scares. These images rarely amount to anything, which leaves you wanting so much more than Dark Water is able to deliver.
Tim Roth also shows up, playing a lawyer who’s a good guy even though he’s a bit of a liar and mysterious just in case we need a final twist involving his character. It helps with the atmosphere. It feels really silly by the end how hard the film is trying to get us to be scared, but at least the effort is there. It’s just too bad that very few of the payoffs work as well as director Walter Salles wants. We’ve seen most of it before, and you’re likely to see through any misdirection the film tries to throw your way.
It’s nice to see that the ending — which I’ve read felt disappointing for some people — didn’t wind up taking the easy way out. Part of the side story in Dark Water involves Dahlia’s attempt to be a better mother than hers was, going the extra mile to be the best person for her daughter. The ending concludes that theme, and works perfectly in doing so. The film could have chickened out, but it didn’t, and I respect that. Now, if this theme mattered more throughout the film, perhaps this could have been its saving grace.
I also would have liked to see more of the supporting cast. Tim Roth doesn’t show up until halfway through, while John C. Reilly disappears after the opening few scenes, and is seen only a few short times afterward. Pete Postlethwaite is one of the few constants, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. As the role of the child, Ariel Gade actually turns in a very convincing performance, which is a rarity coming from child actors.
It’s Jennifer Connelly’s film, however, and she’s successful if not necessarily great. I’m not her biggest fan, but she pulls off the paranoid, delusional mother role quite well. Granted, a large portion of the film rests on her acting against special effects and dirty water, so it’s not like she has a great deal to play off against, but she’s just fine in this film. The effects used to alter the apartment building are also fantastic. Sometimes these things aren’t given enough budget to look convincing, but the ones used in this movie certainly are.
Dark Water is a watchable remake of a Japanese horror movie. That alone puts it ahead of most of the pack in the same situation. It’s really creepy and has good actors and convincing special effects. It’s just never really all that scary. The payoff for most of the imagery shown throughout just doesn’t add up to anything. And it ties is central theme together nicely at the end, even if it isn’t terribly prevalent or impactful through most of the picture. Can I recommend Dark Water? Not really, although it’s not something you need to stay away from, either.