Hollywood has had a rather inordinate obsession with horror films lately. Perhaps it's because horror films are cheap to make, and don't have to make a fortune at the box office or entrance the critics in order to be profitable. At the same time, there's been a general trend away from the straight-up gore-fests that passed for horror in the late seventies and most of the eighties. People are looking backwards at the scary films of yesteryear for inspiration, which is a good thing in theory, unless you've seen enough of said films to tell exactly how they run.
Dark Water is based on a book by the same author as the Japanese version of The Ring, a film which in both its original and domestic incarnations owed a great deal of debt to the classic seventies flick The Changeling, which I would be willing to bet a hefty dose of something expensive-provided I could safely welch should I be wrong-was a direct inspiration. I would further suggest that Dark Water was the result of the author having failed in any way to forget he'd seen The Changeling and feeling compelled to riff on it heavily yet again. The film stars Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia Williams, a woman going through a messy divorce and relocating to a run-down apartment building on Roosevelt Island with her young daughter Cecily, an apartment with some rather nasty plumbing issues that may have a more sinister explanation than the usual "family cat chased dad's toupee down the toilet" crap that the rest of us regularly deal with. The matter of the increasingly nasty divorce begins to wear on Mom's nerves, her daughter begins talking to things that aren't there, and no one in the building seems capable of stopping the nasty black water from seeping down into Dahlia's apartment. In its mix of real-world, mundane reasons for stress and ghostly goings-on, the film makes the supernatural seem like just another straw on the camel's overburdened back, one which likely will prove to be the breaking point.
Generally, for me, horror movies come bearing two distinct types of nervous tension. The first, less obvious type, is the tension that results every time I see a particular scene setup coming and begin to hope, usually without fruition, that it will not play out exactly the way said scene always plays out in the genre and thus annoy me. In this respect, the film is usually devoid of tension. Evidence of the havoc caused by the ghost is, amazingly enough, actually still visible when outside parties are brought in to bear witness, and I can't say how glad I am about it. There are also people here who act like rational, competent human beings, especially a near-unrecognizable Tim Roth as a low-rent but intelligent lawyer, who knows his shit and takes none from others. The downside is that in forsaking jarring Booga! moments and gore, the film also fails to produce scares in any other way, making it regrettably also devoid, to the larger extent, of the more usual sort of tension one expects to find in a ghost story. Frequently it seems as though it really isn't even going for scares, instead making the matter of the haunting seem more of a simple divergence from the norm which need not be unduly frightening. An unusual choice, and I applaud the effort, but it leaves us wanting in the end.
The cast, including Connelly, Roth, and Pete Postlewaite as a maintenance man who we aren't sure if we're supposed to like or not, all turn in excellent performances. The main problems lie in the plot development-almost from the very start the film telegraphs the conclusion to anyone who's ever seen a ghost movie before, and the false ending is now so codified as a prerequisite to writing a horror script that it will spoil no one's expectations to just say flat-out that the film has one. I do appreciate films of this general sort, but when all's said and done, it's just too restrained and polite. Really, just go watch The Changeling; it's obvious that that's what everyone else is doing.
-review by Matt Murray