Dark Water Review
New York's Roosevelt Island lies across the East River from Manhattan, a five minute subway ride from the city. It's a commuter village dominated by ugly, brown tenement blocks and populated by working class New Yorkers who can't afford Manhattan property prices. Its latest resident is Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), a newly single mother who is suffering through a painful divorce. Her ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) has left her for another woman and he's now threatening to sue for custody of their young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Dahlia's new lawyer Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth) is concerned that her history of migraines and neuroses gives Kyle a good case for declaring her an unfit mother.
Her troubles don't end there. The new ninth floor apartment turns out to be not quite the "sub-penthouse" described by fast-talking landlord Mr Murray (John C Reilly). Scowling teenagers lurk in the corridors. Thumping noises emanate from the supposedly empty apartment above. A nasty patch of damp appears directly above Ceci's bed and begins dripping brown, viscous liquid. The building's superintendent, Mr Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) seems reluctant to help. At least these problems might have rational explanations. More disturbing is the change in Ceci's behaviour. She's started talking to an imaginary friend and the friend's influence on her is growing more and more sinister.
So far, so routine. Another Hollywood ghost story and another remake of a Japanese horror film - the original Dark Water was directed by Hideo Nakata who also made the original Ring. I haven't seen the Japanese version but unless it was radically different from the remake, it hasn't added much to the genre. All the familiar trappings of the haunted house movie are here: the creepy building, the mysterious figures who shouldn't be there, the unexplained noises, the spooky little girl, the unfriendly locals, the jump scenes and of course the Terrible Secret. The latter I shall return to later. Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil it.
What distinguishes Dark Water from more mechanical shockers like Boogeyman and The Grudge is the veneer of class brought by Walter Salles, the celebrated Brazilian director of Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries. Salles must have had his own reservations about the plot - he doesn't so much make the material work as distract you from it. It's as if he's made a second, better movie on top of the creaky old ghost story, his movie being a compelling character study of a single mother dealing with her personal demons. Vivid stuff it is too. People who have been through nasty divorces may find parts of it too painful to watch. This element of the film works so much better than the matter of the haunting that I resented the ghost for intruding on it.
Working with director of photography Affonso Beato, Salles succeeds in the near-impossible task of shooting New York in an original way. Avoiding the usual glamorous uptown locations and squalid ghettos, he brings to life a grimy, working class layer of the city that feels real and alive. So do the characters. The uniformly exellent cast manage to breathe new life into people who could easily have been clichés - the put-upon single mother, the unsympathetic ex-husband, the weary street lawyer, the slippery landlord, the surly superintendent. Credit must also go to screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless), whose dialogue is well-observed and often quite witty. John C Reilly has some lines that are flat out funny yet subtle at the same time. You'll have to pay attention to catch them all. If you think about it, Reilly's character is irrelevent, as is Tim Roth's, but thank god they're there.
If Salles and Yglesias have classed up their story, they haven't been able to overcome its flaws. Underneath, this is still an uninspired, second-hand spook story that depends on - here it comes - the Terrible Secret. I'm beginning to think it's the Terrible Secret that's the problem with today's horror films, particularly the Asian and Shyamalan-inspired ones. It's become a convention that all ghosts are the result of a Terrible Secret - a murder perhaps or a horrible case of child abuse. Consequently, ghost stories are too often structured like this one, as simple mysteries punctuated with scary bits. If you can figure out the mystery - and Dark Water's shouldn't be any trouble - it just becomes a matter of sitting through the shocks and waiting for the inevitable. And of course horror movie shocks rarely work if you haven't been taken in by the story.
Another thing - ghosts become less scary when they're explained and especially when human motives are attributed to them. I won't reveal the motives of the ghost in Dark Water but they're so mundane as to be laughable and they don't make sense in terms of what happened before. Hadn't the ghost been haunting the wrong person? The last spooky film that actually scared me was The Mothman Prophecies and I think part of the reason it scared me was that there was no Terrible Secret, no rational explanation for the beings that Richard Gere encountered. Maybe that's a better approach. If not, at least let's have some new explanations. If Hollywood is going to keep making these films - the next one, The Skeleton Key is due next week! - it had better come up with some new ideas and fast.