Despite ho-hum reaction from the film critics, this is not a bad film, although it does suffer from slow pacing. In fact, as a remake it compares more favorably to its source material than THE RING does — at least in part because the Japanese version of DARK WATER is not as good as RINGU. It’s easy to see why an American producer would be attracted to the source material: the tale of divorced mother fighting for her daughter in a custody battle and fending off a malevolent ghost combines real-world believability with supernatural horror, providing a strong identification figure that could appeal to women and thus increase the film’s appeal to an audience not normally known to frequent genre films.
Unfortunately, the supernatural element is underplayed to the extent that the story almost became nothing more than a domestic drama with fly (i.e., ghost) in the ointment. Instead of supernatural manifestations, most of the “horror” resides in the grungy surroundings, which come to represent the state of mind of the protagonist. The film even emphasizes the psychological interpretation by casting the same child actress (Pela Haney-Jardine) as the ghost and as the mother character when she is seen in flashback as a young girl. It’s as if the film is saying that the ghost is spiritually the woman’s daughter
This causes some unnecessary confusion, and it deletes the horror. In the Japanese version of DARK WATER, director Hideo Nakata kept the ghost girl’s face mostly unseen (as he had done in RINGU), which helped lend her a menacing air. Walter Salles diminishes the threat by showing us the girl’s face — she simply is not that spooky. Worse, by making the two daughters look so much alike, the film overplays the mother’s inability to distinguish them, to the point that when the “shocking” revelation is made, viewers almost miss it, because the two girls look too much alike.
Fortunately, the film offers some compensation for these missteps. The atmosphere is extremely effective (thanks to the production designer and the cinematographer), and the cast is great. Jennifer Connelly is very moving as the strung-out mother. Brit Tim Roth is absolutely convincing as her sympathetic American lawyer. John C. Reilly does a wonderful job as the sleazebag slumlord who always pretends to be on top of everything but never lifts a finger as his property falls to pieces. And Pete Postlethwaite manages to register memorably in what could have been a thankless role, as the grumpy, slightly sinister repairman in the rundown building.
The screenplay has a few nice touches. It manages to make you care about what’s happening, and never succumbs to the temptation to throw the story out the window and plunge full bore into thriller mode (a tactic that destroyed HIDE AND SEEK, which has a slightly similar feel). This restrained approach pays off in the long run: establishing a sense of reality makes the intrusions of the supernatural that much more effective.
The film also deserves some credit for massaging the usual Hollywood clichés. Inevitably, the former spouse has to be cast in a bad light in order to fuel the drama. DARK WATER certainly does this, at first, but near the end the script works hard to show the warring spouses coming to some kind of mutual understanding, if not reconciliation, and the scene really works toward making the story feel believable, not contrived for maximum melodrama at the expense of credibility.
Although not as financially successful as the American version of THE RING, DARK WATER is probably the better movie; at least, it does a better job of standing up on its own terms in comparison to the Japanese original. As a horror film, it is a bit of a disappointment, but it works fairly well as a dramatic psychological thriller with some supernatural elements.
The film may feel like a bit of a rehash: not only is it a remake, but also Hideo Nakata stole some of its thunder when he directed THE RING TWO, which incorporated many elements he had used in the Japanese version of DARK WATER. Yet the American remake of DARK WATER still emerges as the superior film; especially, it gets points for remaining true to the bittersweet spirit of the original ending, which offered a sad but touching silver lining to a very dark cloud.
DARK WATER, like THE RING, is a remake of a Japanese horror film. Both Japanese films were based on novel by Koji Suzuki, and both were directed by Hideo Nakata. Although the remake of THE RING was directed by Gore Verbinski, THE RING TWO was directed by Nakata. Apparently bored with THE RING mythology, Nakata (working with screenwriter Ehren Kruger) turned RING TWO into an unofficial remake of DARK WATER. Both films feature a mother protecting her child from a waterlogged ghost that wants to find a surrogate mother and thus enjoy the happy childhood that was cruelly denied her during life.
DARK WATER (2005). Directed by Walter Salles. Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, based onthe novel by Koji Suzuki and the film scripted by Hideo Nakata and Takashige Ichise. Cast: Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, Pete Postlethwaite, Camryn Manheim, Ariel Gade, Pela Haney-Jardine.