The Film: Dark Water (2001)
The Principles: Hideo Nakata (Director), Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno and Mirei Oguchi
The Premise: A single mother fights against her husband for sole custody, and then fights against script boredom as she moves to a haunted apartment.
Is It Good: On paper (literally) this is a train wreck. Thanks to the detailed direction of Hideo Nakata, it is one of the better J-horror films. It is essentially a Ti West slow moving script that goes almost nowhere, but Nakata seems much more in control than the controversial modern day director. This made it on to my list of movies to share based on the reaction of two people I showed it to that still curse my name just from hearing the title.
I can’t say it was that scary, but it this was the fourth solo feature horror film that Nakata had directed. The first was one of the films often cited as one of the films that started the J-horror craze of the late 90s, Don’t Look Up (aka Ghost Actress). His second and third were the franchise that scared audiences foreign and domestic with the original or the Gore Verbinski helmed remake of Ringu (aka The Ring). His experience in the horror genre was not only firmly established but regarded by many to be one of the pioneers of a film market that had been grasped by the horror community and thrived by word of mouth. Dark Water came at the tail end of the J-horror trend, and the story formulas were getting exhausted, predictable and so formulaic that they were essentially boring.
Dark Water was nothing different than the other boring tales being told at the time, except Nakata was at the helm. Nakata doesn’t play fair with the story though, as he purposely screws with the audience. On more than one occasion, there were things seen that just hold space but creep the viewer out. They have absolutely no real reason to be there, but it is done for the express purpose that he could. The most noticeable of these scenarios occur with the elevator rides. Taking something so simple and making it a moment of expected terror through multiple different methods shows that he really wanted to impact you. The simplest is any time spent dealing with the elevator is held deep in shadow and when the mother gets in she faces two grimy panes of glass that look out onto some dimly lit lengthy hallways. On the second or third time this occurs a door slowly creeps open and a small ghost girl is witnessed. The elevator is also viewed through a static filled security screen at the main desk, which is used by the landlord and the mother at some point. Toward the third act one of the most frightful events of the entire film occurs with absolutely no gimick to make you notice it. The mother is in the elevator and the screen shows her and a dark shadow slightly behind her. The shot even cuts away and then returns the same scope where the dark shape slightly moves. Their are no sound cues, no close up on the shape, just silence and anticipation of seeing the same ghost girl through the same greasy windows as before, but it is noticeable enough to instill fear in a way that most directors would never attempt and the ones that did would screw it up by bringing it into the foreground. There is also a subplot involving the Father stalking the family and leaving cigarette marks on the button, so if you happen to forget the ghost in the hall and the ghost in the elevator there is still the visual reminder that the husband could also be doing something foul.
Nakata uses long shots, darkly lit environments and a sound design that not only adds perfectly eerie sound effects but also knows when not to use any sound. This may be his strongest display as a horror director, but at the same time the weakest entry of his Japanese based films. His methodical pacing takes it precious time getting to the end of an amazingly short concept, but the longer the film plays the scarier his environment becomes, magnifying the intensity to elevate the mediocre story into something that remains terrifying.
Is It Worth A Look: Yes. I had the highest hopes for Nakata after this film. I thought if he could make this sad story interesting (it’s a horror film with only one death that occurs off screen, no blood, no sex and honestly no violence, all things that would spell suicide in the torture porn riddled genre known as modern horror), then he could work anywhere with anything. Ehren Kruger, who I often believe is the biggest hack of a writer in Hollywood, proved this wrong by writing Nakata’s domestic premiere, The Ring 2. Once again, Nakata made quite a bit of the scenes truly frightful, but anytime dialogue was spoken it removed the audience from the world of the film and broke all the rhythm. This same writer is the guy to blame for the Bay Transformers sequels and the third Scream.
Dark Water doesn’t break any ground in terms of ideas. It’s a J-horror about the body of a premature death that is not able to be given the respect needed to allow the spirit to pass from this world. After years of different takes on this same theme, the story doesn’t do anything new except it uses a child as the ghost and a child as the victim. The divorce subplot has only enough weight to take the focus away from the ghost and also give her a reason to attempt to stay in the creepy apartment. The eventual remake suffered from the same weak plot but placed a focus on the acting talent (Jennifer Connelly, John C Reilly and Tim Roth) but fell way short in terms of direction.
Nakata had desired to be a conductor. That love of music led to his influence on the sound design for his films. He extend sounds longer to increase tension and uses a minimal approach when it comes to sounds.
Nakata also felt this film was similar to The Ring in the sense both were about motherly love.
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Cinematic Soulmates: Ringu, Ghost Actress, Chaos, Ju-on, The Eye, Sinister, Insidious, Tomie