We can all be a touch cynical when it comes to delivering a critique of English language remakes. It’s not at all surprising when you look at Hollywood treatments down the years, with their big blow up and over-simplification of so many gems of European cinema. And lately the trend has been for exploiting the thriving Asian horror genre, with The Ring, its sequel and The Grudge all coming in for a critical kicking in recent years. Can Dark Water buck the trend?
On paper it seems an odd one. Walter Salles, acclaimed Brazilian director of Central Station and the award-hoarding ride that is The Motorcycle Diaries, taking on a New York-set psychological chiller. No panoramic beauty here, just a dingy off-Manhattan block with some serious plumbing problems and a rickety lift. In common with many other US adaptations, we get a thorough sketching in of the original film story, making much more explicit what is merely suggested in Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original.
The story goes thus: a mother (Jennifer Connelly) takes her five-year old daughter to live in a cheap apartment to try to start afresh (new job and kindergarten), whilst still in the middle of a thoroughly unpleasant custody battle with her estranged husband (Dougray Scott). Once there, they find an ugly, dark, damp patch on their bedroom ceiling and an uncooperative caretaker (Pete Postlethwaite) who prefers to pass the buck to John C Reilly’s dodgy letting agent. Ultimately the problem is fixed, but as is the way in these movies, darker forces are at play. The little girl’s mental state is called into question, first by her teacher and then both parents when she starts talking to and getting pretty agitated about an imaginary friend. Could this be something to do with the school bag she finds up on the roof of the building? And is that flooded apartment on the floor above really the work of bored teenagers?
Many of Dark Water’s key supernatural moments – the passing ghost that barely registers, a tidal wave from an elevator, the blinking flashbacks that demonstrate the fragile state of mother as well as daughter’s mind – are familiar devices, but still it holds together and keeps the viewer’s mind on things. The key is the casting. Connelly does a fine job of putting us inside her mind and keeping us on her side; newcomer Ariel Gade manages the trick of not only not being an irritating kid, but actually a fine actor; Postlethwaite, despite an eccentric accent that seems part-Scouse, part-East European, part-Brooklyn, is winningly gruff; and Tim Roth’s turn as a dishevelled loner attorney who takes a close personal interest in the mother’s plight, too, is convincing. Best of all is the ever-consistent John C Reilly, priceless in his opening scene, where he sells the dank, grey apartment as some kind of luxury pad. He even enthuses about the view from a window – one you may recognise from many a prison movie. Cast-wise, only Dougray Scott, as the absent father, is under-used.
Walter Salles has made better films and will undoubtedly make better films in the future, but far from being the disaster many predicted, Dark Water makes plenty of its source material, alongside a cast that’s always worth watching.