Saturday, December 1, 2012

When It Rains It Pours: Dark Water (2005)

From the opening shot of the 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, we know we are in for a wet ride - so wet that I wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just go ahead and set it in Seattle. But the Roosevelt Island setting is, in fact, one of the standout elements of this often reviled American remake of a Japanese horror film.

Both films are adapted from the same source material, a short story by Koji Suzuki who wrote the original novel The Ring. Japanese horror flicks became wildly popular among horror fans in the 2000s after the successful American remakes of The Ring and The Grudge… so much so that they coined the nickname of J Horror. Displaying an overwhelming sense of unoriginality over the past twenty years or so, Hollywood has a way of plundering anything and everything it can get its hands on, so that by the time Dark Water arrived in 2005, fans of original foreign films were ready to ipso facto hate anything that had an English language remake. Take a look at customer reviews of Fincher’s version of TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo on Amazon if you don’t believe me.

Prejudice in favor of foreign originals aside, I think part of the reason Dark Water has a bad rep is that it isn’t horror movie – not in the contemporary sense of the word. It is a ghost story first and foremost, with all the traditional elements in tact… and beneath the surface story lies a superb example of the Psychological Gothic. For my money, ghost stories work best when these two elements walk hand in hand. The Haunting (of Hill House), The Woman in Black, The Changeling – each a brilliant ghost story with a strong psychological undercurrent. In these stories, the lonely and bereaved are highly susceptible to supernatural manifestations.

In Dark Water we have a young mother, Dahlia (played with utter conviction by Jennifer Connelly) trying to raise a seven-year-old girl on her own while suffering through a nasty custody battle and a borderline addiction to sedatives. Connelly’s performance shows us a woman with a battered soul, already hanging by a thin, psychological thread, so that during the first half of the movie we wonder how much is in Dahlia’s head and how much is “reality.”

While Dark Water does not feature the old Gothic house which plays a starring role in the films mentioned above, the setting of the low income, industrial housing complex on Roosevelt Island is as dreary and depressing as any crumbling manor house. It is this visual element of urban decay which gives Dark Water much of its strength – an urban dwelling has not been this menacing since Rosemary’s Baby.

Dark Water hits my buttons on many levels. It’s the sort of movie that makes me say, “I wish I wrote that.” Hopefully, with the passage of time, Dark Water will be considered less an offense to J Horror enthusiasts and given the respect it deserves as a beautifully wrought Gothic ghost story. 


  1. Thank you for the review. I only vaguely remember the trailer for this movie. At the time, it reminded me of "The Ring" and then it disappeared from theaters. I love "The Haunting" and am intrigued by a decaying industrial building replacing the traditional Gothic Castle (I live in Detroit which is somewhat famous for its urban ruins). I'll have to check this out.

  2. I passed up Dark Water in the theaters pretty much for the same reason. I'm using the Urban Decay motif in a book I'm writing. When I thought about horror movies with this type of imagery, only two came to mind. Dark Water and The Exorcist...the homeless man in the subway...the kids stomping on the abandoned car outside of Karras' mother's apartment building. Strong visuals for an already disturbing story.