by Sarah Scott
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Following the tread of The Others and The Ring 1 & 2, Dark Water is the latest ghostly horror flick to deal with Mommy Issues. All four of these films are rated PG-13, in an apparent attempt to woo the increasingly-vital contingent of adolescent girls to the box office. What Dark Water sacrifices to the MPAA, however, that the others did not, are the very things that lure girls to these movies in the first place: the screaming, giggling, popcorn-tossing scares.
In Dark Water, we once again have a single mother who, when confronted with a petulant young ghost upset over her own abandonment, must protect her daughter from the ghost’s increasingly-violent manifestations of sibling rivalry. The mother, Dahlia, is newly separated from her hostile husband, Kyle, and is eager to start a new life with her young daughter, Ceci. She finds a rather unsavory apartment, run by a morally-questionable landlord (John C. Reilly), but her desperation and the building’s proximity to one of the city’s best grade schools lead her to take the place.
Things seem okay at first, but an incessant leak in Dahlia’s ceiling leads her to inspect the unit above, where she wades ankle-deep through the titular liquid. When she asks the creepy apartment manager, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite, of The Usual Suspects - Kobayashi fame), about the unit, she finds out some unsettling things about the former tenants. To top it off, Ceci now seems to have a rather persistent imaginary friend, Natasha, who starts disrupting things at school (extra credit to anyone who can guess the name of the child that lived upstairs). Things soon start to spiral for Dahlia, and questions about her sanity - she gets migraines and has nightmares about the mother who abandoned her - begin to threaten her custody of Ceci. Is Dahlia going crazy, or is there really a ghost who has her mind set on joining the family?
Directed by Walter Salles in his English-language debut (his last film, The Motorcycle Diaries, was one of the best of 2004 and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film), Dark Water is visually rich. The desaturated brown, gray, and green tones effectively give the depressed Roosevelt Island setting the appropriate sense of foreboding, and the mammoth, prison-like apartment building becomes another character in the film.
But that’s where any artistry in the film ends. Utterly lacking in emotion or suspense, watching the film starts to feel akin to watching one of the featured leak buckets fill with water, drip by annoyingly slow drip. The few jolts which are sprinkled in the film seem to be afterthoughts, as if the studio realized their movie was straying from its genre and decided to add a couple of cheap scares. With the exception of the always superb John C. Reilly, who provides a much-needed dose of mild comic relief, performances match the tone of the film: cold and austere. Time and time again in her performances, Connelly has proven herself the queen of emotional sobriety, and she doesn’t disappoint here as Dahlia. Ariel Gade’s Ceci is convincing enough, but while watching her performance one can’t help but realize why Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment have the careers that they do. Dougray Scott as Kyle and Postlethwaite as Veeck give patchy performances, but to their credit the movie demanded it of them - their characters are saddled with providing several misdirects for the audience and any semblance of choices they made as actors are therefore drowned out (pun intended).
It’s impossible not to compare Dark Water to The Ring movies, not the least reasons for which being that both this and The Ring are based on Japanese books by the same author, and were helmed by the same Japanese director in their original versions. They even have the same signature imagery of children, ghost children, and water mixing in very unpleasant ways. But ultimately, Water is a less fulfilling version of its predecessors. Where The Rings have rousing (if cheesy) final acts - “I’m not your fucking mommy!,” anyone? - in which we get to see some mom-on-ghost action, Dark Water ebbs slowly back to a tranquil sea. Dahlia solves the mystery of the ghost, but we still don’t get a satisfying resolution to the movie. The fact that young Dahlia and Natasha are both played by the same actress, Perla Haney-Jardine, seems meant to convey some esoteric metaphor for the cyclical nature of abandonment, but this gets lost in execution. By its very nature, Dark Water is a less cinematic, less scary version of essentially the same horror story we’ve seen, and an unnecessary addendum to those movies.
Sarah Scott is a film critic in Los Angeles.
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