Dark Water

darkwaterOne of the nice things to read about the impending remake of this Japanese horror movie is that the American company have opted for Brazilian director Walter Salles to helm the production rather than some MTV hack. This is a nice indication that they are taking it seriously and that we will be spared a “re-imagining” of this nifty little number for the vidiot MTV-generation.

Hideo Nakata also directed the original Ringu that was the basis for Gore Verbinski’s The Ring; Ringu was an effective horror gem that spawned several above-grade sequels and dozens of cheaper knock-offs. (check out http://www.teleport-city.com for a review and explanation of Ringu’s success)

Nakata made Dark Water in 2002. It’s the story of a recent divorcee, Yoshimi, who tries to make a new life with her daughter Ikuko, while finalizing her divorce and fighting her ex-husband for custody of Ikuko.

They move into a run-down old building. Things start to happen…stuff that tends to happen in horror movies*. A young girl disappeared from the building years ago. She went to the same school as Ikuko. Can there be a connection? Or is Yoshimi simply going nuts from the stress of divorce? She certainly can’t afford to lose it, as her husband is still hovering in the wings.

Nakato is, thankfully, not an Michael Bay-style director. His takes are slow and languorous; if it didn’t make me sound like some kind of perv, I’d say that he builds up the horror in an almost sensuous way; his use of relatively static cinematography, some dynamite sound engineering, as well as coaxing subtle and nuanced performances from his actor all come together to create an organic whole. There are a few instances of “kinetic” camera work, but since they are few and far between, they retain their power and ability to pack a wallop, both emotional and fright-wise.

Kudos to the actors as well: Their characters are utterly believable. Rio Kanno, who plays the 6-year old Ikuko, is wonderful: She is quick to laughter and fear and isn’t precocious or sarcastic beyond her years. Here is a 6-year old child allowed to be just that and the movie is all the better for it. Yoshimi is no less wonderful. Dealing with slowly finding out something is very wrong; that someone or something is stalking them, she remains equally convincing as the mother deathly afraid of losing her child or of not being able to make the payments.

This is another strength of the movie: Real life happens alongside the supernatural. Even if things go bump in the night, Yoshimi still needs to be at work in the morning. We find out that she, as a child, saw a therapist in order to deal with her own parents’ divorce. Juxtaposing the idea that Yoshimi may in fact be coming unglued with the more probable scenario of a haunting, Nakata deftly creates a suffocating atmosphere that just becomes more and more so. The gradual revelation of who or what our ghost is jars us further: it isn’t a faceless evil either, not really. The ghost is all too human: scared, lonely, selfish…and frightening as all hell.

Without wanting to give anything away, the climax is damn near perfect; claustrophobic and shocking, a mix of real horrors and supernatural ones: just as in Ringu, things don’t quite work out as planned for our heroes. Choices must be made, none of which are easy. The ending isn’t happy Hollywood fare and as viewers, we feel almost cheated. Nakata doesn’t let go, though, adding a coda that one at first would think anticlimactic. But revisiting our characters ten year later, we are treated to one last scare that is guaranteed to make you look twice over your shoulder (I know I did.), as well as add further pathos to an already sad conclusion.

There is no black or white here, just a lot of greys. That the ghost for a moment somehow wrings sympathy out of us makes it all scarier: We are given not only the very human horrors of Yoshimi and Ikuko, but those of the ghost at well. Dark Water is that all-too-rare thing: a proper horror movie. Not a slasher or gore movie. No blood is shed, nor are any limbs cut off; it’s a resolutely blood-free zone. The chills and the scares we experience are the work of a sound story, solid acting and atmosphere put together. Not many people can do this sort of thing nowadays. As a confessed horror fan, I hope Nakata will mine the genre for a looong time. This is the sort of exercise that goes a long way to dismiss the tag of lowbrow and stupid that is often (and often deservedly, I admit) attached to the genre. Don’t wait for the remake, just see this instead if you can. It’s worth your while, trust me.


  • Director: Hideo Nakata
23.04.2004 • Permalink