Water is one of the lead characters in the movie.
— Producer Bill Mechanic
“I’m attracted by the unknown, by the unexplainable,” says director Walter Salles in “Beneath the Surface: The Making of Dark Water.” This five-part featurette for the film’s new DVD includes observations and explanations from cast and crew members, from stars Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly to production designer Thérèse DePrez (on the chapter entitled “Water by Design”), all extolling the virtues of this unexpected horror film. According to the section, “A Director’s Vision,” the filmmaker spent his childhood watching scary movies (in particular, Polanski’s), apparently inspiring his interest in the “unknown.”
The movie, however, is less unknown than it might appear. A remake 2002’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara, directed by Hideo Nakata and written by Kôji Suzuki (who also collaborated on the thematically similar Ringu), Dark Water focuses intently on Connelly’s “woman in jeopardy,” in particular, her increasing inability to differentiate between inner and external traumas. Named Dahlia and produced by a difficult childhood (that is, an alcoholic mother, who leaves her in flashback waiting at school in rainy “Seattle 1974”), she is troubled in the film’s present by fears that she cannot take care of her own daughter, the precocious Ceci (Ariel Gade).
As described by executive producer Ashley Kramer, Dark Water is “not a popcorny kind of horror movie. It’s a very psychological, character-driven, supernatural horror and that appealed to us because it was a chance to make something in a genre that could lift above the genre.” If it doesn’t exactly “lift above,” it does at least poke at generic conventions, using what is “known” to allude to other possibilities. Dahlia’s present is “New York City 2005,” where she gazes out a window at still more rain. She waits forlornly for her about-to-be-ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott), late for their appointment with divorce mediators. He arrives, scolds her as if he’s done this a thousand times before: what’s the matter with her that she hasn’t even tried knocking at the mediators’ door? Dahlia goes along with this, sort of. Once inside the office, she announces that she means to keep their daughter, “You can’t handle it,” asserts Kyle. Dahlia has mom issues (one scene has the mother’s head pitched into the toilet, her black hair scraggly over her face as she hisses at young Dahlia, “I hate you”).
Salles suggests that Dahlia is passive because she is haunted. Dark Water, he says, “is really about the inner demons that the character that Jennifer plays takes with her. Those demons are related to her past, but also to a certain psychological angst that she is unable to control.” Though Dahlia is nothing like her mother, she’s afraid to be a bad mom. (Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias says the film concerns “something elemental in the human condition, the longing for a loving mother.”)
Dahlia’s fear is made visible — even physical — in her new apartment, located on Roosevelt Island (which, in “An Island Apart,” Connelly describes as “really close to Manhattan but a world apart”). Here, says Ashley Kramer, “You’re surrounded by people but you’re very alone.” Salles also notes the look of the apartment buildings: “It’s almost an industrial, repetitive space,” in which his characters feel a “loss of solitude and claustrophobia” at the same time. Dahlia’s apartment is awesomely creepy (as well as “insanely inconvenient” for Kyle): here it rains inside (the walls are “bleeding” according to Salles).
When Dahlia notes leaks in the grimly grindy elevator as well as Ceci’s bedroom ceiling, manager Mr. Murray (the very inventive Reilly) puts her off. He’s distracted by other business (“The bathroom’s pretty self-explanatory”) and the surly super, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), appears bothered even by Ceci’s adorable presence. The apartment’s green walls, claustrophobic spaces, and deep shadows make it seem the sort of place where David Lynch’s characters live; as Ceci puts it, “There’s no air in here.” Unsure of what to do, Dahlia hesitates.
Meantime, Ceci heads to the rooftop in pursuit of a ghostish girl with a particular affection for a pink Hello Kitty backpack. This would be Natasha (also played by Haney-Jardine), who used to live upstairs and whose sad family photo has been left behind. Moved by Natasha in the way that little girls in scary movies tend to be when they meet “imaginary friends” who will go on to terrify their parents, Ceci changes her mind about the apartment and insists they move in (“I really want to move here”). Dahlia rationalizes the decision by pointing to the great school two blocks away. Here the teacher (Camryn Manheim) is affectionate and energetic, soon advising Dahlia about how to handle Ceci’s increasingly strange behavior.
The more anxious Dahlia becomes, the more she fears that she is unable to “handle it,” the more the dark, soppy, unruly apartment resembles her state of mind. Dark Water hits this dysfunctional mother nerve more than once, particularly in her spats with Kyle, which insinuate an awful marital history even as they suggest that it’s her perspective shaping the scene. “I don’t know who pressed your wacko button today,” he snarks.
Salles’ movie adopts the immersive subjectivity that makes j-horror so unnerving. (in large part this is a function of sound, and the DVD includes as well a doc called “The Sound of Terror: The Subliminal Soundscapes of Dark Water,” a discussion of sound design, with recording mixer Scott Millan and sound designer Frank Gaeta.) Dahlia’s experiences — past and present, inside and outside, night and day — blur together, as she’s either beginning to believe or wholly inhabit Kyle’s judgments of her. Just how she’s supposed to Dahlia is horrified when she “loses a day” to a migraine headache (and prescription medication) and forgets to pick up Ceci at school. At this point, the distinctions between mom’s subjective and material experiences seem quite erased.
It hardly helps that the upstairs apartment, supposedly vacated, is flooded daily, with literally dark and odious water that seeps into Dahlia’s through an ever-widening hole that looks almost organic. While Veeck dismisses the flooding (taps left on and toilets overflowing) as a prank by some shadowy “kids” running loose in the building, Dahlia remains unconvinced. Repeatedly, the film lines up her sense of dread alongside a potential explanation, without granting full credence to either, making your own judgment suspect as well.
Almost worse than these competing illogics, the film offers what might be the embodiment of logic, a lawyer named Platzer (Tim Roth, brilliantly lurching between shady and reassuring). He arrives on the scene seemingly by chance (recommended by an unseen, on the phone friend of Dahlia’s — who also might be quite “real”), then takes both her cases instantly, both for custody and against the landlord. He calls her from his car, currently serving as his office because, well, he speed-explains, they’ve just painted and the fumes are devastating. While her environment is literally collapsing around her, he offers respite in his car and a brief moment of clarity — legally speaking — when he warns Dahlia to temper her characterizations of events, lest she accommodate Kyle’s lawyers’ assertions that she’s suffering from “paranoid delusions.”
While Dahlia is used to such language about herself, she’s shaken when Platzer suggests Ceci is “starting to share your fantasies.” Dahlia absorbs this notion, as she must, as a reinforcement of her sense of being cursed, whether in psychological, chemically imbalanced, or traumatized ways. Being a horror movie (and a very good-looking one, even for all its tricks and annoyances), Dark Water can’t grant her a solution, or even much of an objective correlative for her suffering. Another extra on the DVD, “Analyzing Dark Water Scenes,” offers a couple of scenes with commentary and replays, explicating the effects and the intentions. But this only exacerbates the film’s shortfalls: it looks incredibly ooky, but it doesn’t sustain the tone into its plot.
Many horror movies, past and recent, use the bad mother hook. What makes Dark Water intriguing is that it tries so hard to complicate Dahlia’s understanding of this dilemma, as a social and psychic construct as much as a personal experience. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite resolve or even open up the problem, but only drops it, leaving guilty mom to her own conventional devices. And so, it seems, Dahlia is still waiting.