Dark Water

Let me first say this about Walter Salles’ “Dark Water”. However efficient it is as a horror movie, however well-crafted it is in the ghost story vein of the genre, it’s not the kind of stuff I’d want to see again. As you step out of the theater after a movie like this, boy do you feel like watching some crazy cartoon or a breezy comedy. Because make no mistakes about it people, “Dark Water” has images that can chill your blood and terrify you to your very core. I felt much the same way about the original Japanese film made in 2002 by Hideo Nakata and released this week on DVD. Both are creepy, scary affairs that take the same cruel detour to show a mother’s decision made at a terrible, terrible price. One of the differences in Salles’ version is that the story makes perhaps too much of an attempt to ground things in reality, especially towards the end, for example when the police is involved. The Brazilian director, from a screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, made a film that could be interpreted as more “positive”, although you could easily argue with that and contend the Japanese film offers the same kind of “closure”, if you’re willing to use that term.

Let’s get to the story, here set on Roosevelt Island, a small piece of land squeezed between Manhattan and Queens in New York City. Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) is in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband (Dougray Scott) as she’s looking for an apartment for her and 5 year-old daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade). They visit a sprawling and, quite frankly, depressing high-rise apartment complex. The lobby’s uninspiring, the elevator’s worrisome and the janitor doesn’t look too reliable, but the rent is affordable and it’s close to a school, so they decide to take it. The actual visit introduces us to the building manager and the janitor, two characters who seem off-key because they bring comical touches to material that relies, mostly with great success, on a slowly mounting sense of dread.

The manager, Mr. Murray, is played by John C. Reilly. As with used car salesmen, infomercial pitchmen and others of similar objectives, Mr. Murray knows that it’s important to just keep on talking, no matter how inane or pointless the words. He keeps finding doubtful advantages and qualities to what are in truth structural failings or oddities. My favorite spins are what he says about the bizarrely placed window that supposedly lets in lots of sunshine in the afternoon, the side-folding dinner table (“no clutter”) and last but not least the overall view from the apartment. Murray casually describes it as the envy of many when all it does is reveal how crushingly enormous, dull and grey the complex is. Pete Postlethwaite is the janitor, a quiet man who’s humorously gruff but most of all looks like he knows more than he lets on.

Very soon after Dahlia and Cecilia move in, they notice an ugly water stain on the ceiling, a stain that will get bigger and quite repulsive. It’s eventually patched up by the janitor, but the real problem remains. That’s because there is something lurking upstairs, something dark whose actions will have horrible consequences. Without saying too much, it’s about the abandonment of a child by her parents but also the devastating yet undeniable need it created for a little girl of Cecilia’s age. “Dark Water” centers on the notion of humanity and more precisely of motherhood, and therefore creates its own peculiar ray of light, but the road it takes to get there is paved with creepy or horrific images, including the most chilling look I’ve ever seen at the movies from a child character. Yet even if the mix of horror and family drama is disturbing, Salles, who directed “Central Station” as well as the splendid “Motorcycle Diaries”, maneuvers with a sure hand. He and cinematographer Affonso Beato, along with the visual effects team, use the island and the apartment to build a strong sense of displacement and a feeling of being dwarfed by uncontrollable forces. The performance of Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”, “House of Sand and Fog”) is first-rate in the role of a mother with a traumatic childhood now just trying to start anew in life, and both little girls, coached by Andrew Magarian and played by Gade and Perla Haney-Jardine, are stunningly expressive. I recommend “Dark Water” to those who wish to broaden their horizon of horror film knowledge, because it is made with skill at multiple levels and because it is gripping, but do know that it deals with very heavy and harrowing stuff.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay