The drip appears as if out of nowhere. It’s a new apartment, but just the presence of the ominous leak — along with the placid, pitch-black pool it creates — evokes a preternatural apprehension that goes beyond the usual house-warming jitters. And if the apartment upstairs is vacant, why does it sound like someone has the water running up there?
By now, you think you know where Walter Salles’s moody “Dark Water” is headed, but don’t be so hasty. The honorable if not especially effective new addition to the American J-horror library takes Hideo Nakata’s (“Ringu”) 2002 thriller about a soon-to-be divorced woman (played in this version by Jennifer Connelly, in all of her natural radiance) who moves into a haunted apartment with her young daughter and digs deeper, developing into a maternal psychodrama with a supernatural edge from the more straightforward ghost story of the original.
Granted, the film takes heavy inspiration from its predecessors. There’s the “imaginary friend,” which, obviously, is the ghost of a little girl who was abandoned or thrown down a well or whatever. Meanwhile, the bathtub has these neat glass doors, the indestructible kind that horror movies love, which are particularly helpful when the hooligan upstairs traps young girls and uses them as collateral. And let’s not even get started about the malevolent spirits who would rather swim around in a washing machine than come out the F/X-enhanced shadows and just tell us what they’re after in the first place.
But then the film surprises us. The supporting players, including John C. Reilly (“Chicago”), Pete Postlethwaite (“Amistad”) and Tim Roth (“Silver City”) as the shady super, grounds manager and lawyer, respectively, all harbor secrets that are based more on their characters and less on the requirements of the screenplay. And the movie is more interested in the nuances of the mother and daughter characters than the freaky apparitions that haunt them, endowing the film with a genuine-enough dramatic element that goes beyond the don’t-look-behind-you schlock.
Alas, the two-front narrative never finds any tangible coherence. The atmosphere, a punishing, monotonous gloom, becomes almost claustrophobic as the plot continues to complicate itself, making it tough to shake the feeling that the movie never really knew where it intended to go in the first place; it’s a muddle of dubious motivations and murky pasts that come crashing into each other. The film is just as uneven as it is unconventional, ambitious yet haphazardly unsure of itself.
“Dark Water” marks the English-language debut of Brazilian director Salles, who dazzled art houses last fall with the gorgeous but remote Che fairy tale “The Motorcycle Diaries.” While the film never quite realizes its potential, it’s hard not to admire what Salles was trying to do. Consider the final scene, where just when we’re ready for the obligatory, cheap, post-climax final shock, he produces instead a moment of almost startling tenderness and intelligence. Had the whole film struck such a level of spook-laced poignancy, there might have really been something here. But in the mean time, on a stagnant summer night, this will do.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars