The tagline for Dark Water says, “Some mysteries were never meant to be solved.” Unfortunately, the filmmakers solve it for you just a few minutes into the movie.
The tepid Dark Water follows Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly), a divorcing mother who is starting a new life in a new apartment. Well, maybe “new apartment” is stretching it a bit — it’s actually a run-down, moldy, leaky dark and dank shoebox on Roosevelt Island. Knowing what a health hazard mold is, it’s surprising that she’d move a young child (daughter Ceci, played by Ariel Gade) into a cinderblock slum like that, but later on when her estranged husband (Dougray Scott) calls her sanity into question, so do we. Dahlia does a lot of rather unbelievable things, but then again this is a horror movie: Sometimes we expect to have to suspend disbelief.
Mysterious noises, persistent leaks, and strange sounds coming from the supposedly abandoned apartment upstairs send Dahlia on a puzzling pursuit to find out who or what is behind the endless taunts. There are the usual suspects — a churlish doorman (Pete Postlethwaite), an uncaring landlord (John C. Reilly), a pair of nameless teen thugs, and of course, the angry ex. There is also another element: A sad childhood that haunts Dahlia, cursing her with migraines, nightmares, and even blackouts.
Ceci doesn’t fare much better in the mental health arena. She’s in trouble at her new school for acting out and having an “imaginary friend” who insists on being included in all the class activities. This routine is getting old (it worked well enough in Hide and Seek and The Amityville Horror remake, but enough is enough already for this year) but Gade does her level best to make us believe that she believes in the pretend playmate.
There are some good jump-scares and some arresting visuals, but overall the look of the film is so flat, and the desaturated greens are so sickly, that it leads to eyestrain. (Somehow, Connelly still manages to look beautiful even while wading though knee-deep muck.) The muffled dialogue and keening score might cause Dahlia-inspired migraines in some viewers.
As a drama, Dark Water works pretty well. The performances are very good, especially Connelly’s — the Oscar winner is still golden in the acting arena. Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) is more succinct in his storytelling style than usual, and Rafael Yglesias’s (From Hell) screenplay is passable, but as a horror film Dark Water doesn’t contain the sense of dread and tension needed to make you care about what happens to the characters. Natasha, the ghostly girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) who is also a dead-ringer for young Dahlia in the flashback scenes, isn’t all that compelling — she’s made to be neither scary nor sympathetic. In the end, she’s just a generic ghost; another little brunet in a long line of J-horror styled specters.
Perhaps if more of the focus had been shifted to the supernatural elements of the tale and less on the domestic strife and mental breakdowns, the movie would have been scarier. Still, this version of Dark Water is better than the original — peripheral characters are more developed, and there is a cohesive narrative to the story. The ending is no surprise, but it is open to interpretation which is more than I can say for most of the recent horror films out there.
Wait for the DVD on this one.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson