With the American remake of The Ring such a surprise hit, the rights to Hideo Nakata's follow-up horror thriller Dark Water didn't linger unbought for very long. To be honest, while Nakata's 2002 original had a few interesting ideas about emotional abandonment and alienation, it largely played as a stale retread of the Ring films, complete with a scary dark-haired ghost girl rising from her watery grave. That particular image has become such a cliché that it represents everything tired and derivative about recent Asian horror cinema. When the inevitable Americanized version was announced, its prospects didn't exactly spark my interest despite the participation of director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless - the 1993 Jeff Bridges drama, not the recent Jet Li martial arts epic), or star Jennifer Connelly. I missed the movie when it played theatrically, and judging by its box office returns so did most everyone else. That's too bad, because looking at it now the movie has a surprising amount of merit and actually improves upon the Japanese original.
Connelly stars as Dahlia, a recently divorced mother forced by economic necessity to move with her young daughter into a dreary, run-down apartment building just outside of New York City. The place is quite clearly a miserable hell hole, a fact the obnoxious building owner (John C. Reilly) tries to downplay by cheerfully announcing that it was "designed in the Brutalist Style" and claiming that the living room is actually a second bedroom. Daughter Ceci hates their new home instantly, but has a sudden turnaround after wandering up to the roof and finding a Hello Kitty backpack mysteriously waiting for her. Resigned that she can do no better, Dahlia tries to make the best of a bad situation and doesn't question her daughter's strange behavior, which includes talking to a new imaginary friend named Natasha.
As if the apartment weren't already unpleasant enough, tromping footsteps from upstairs keep Dahlia awake in the middle of the night, and a water stain on the ceiling starts dripping icky black liquid onto her bed, a problem for which the rude building superintendent (Pete Postlethwaite) doesn't offer much help. As the stain grows larger and larger, it seems to take on supernatural overtones when Dahlia learns the true story of the apartment above and the little girl named Natasha who used to live there.
Salles and Yglesias stick fairly closely to Nakata's basic plotting while effectively transplanting the Japanese setting to urban America. The movie is a ghost story, but the remake downplays the supernatural aspects in favor of nuanced character drama, leaving it ambiguous whether most of the spooky events actually occur only in the emotionally-fragile heroine's head. Abandoned as a child by her own alcoholic mother, Dahlia may just be projecting her fears and insecurities onto her new environment. Connelly delivers a restrained performance free of the histrionics expected in this type of movie, and she's supported by equally good turns from Reilly, Postlethwaite, and especially Tim Roth as her concerned divorce attorney. Each of these roles seems pretty straightforward but are given unexpected complexities. The movie is plenty atmospheric and creepy, but not at all the type of gory shocker the studio promoted it as, which probably accounts for its poor reception. If not exactly a genre masterpiece, the new Dark Water genuinely surprised me with its intelligence and depth of characterization. It's a better movie than it needed to be, and even a better movie than the source it's based on.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Like Buena Vista's other Blu-rays, the disc has no main menu screen, just Blu-ray pop-up menus accessible while the movie plays. This becomes an issue during the initial set-up if you wish to change your audio or subtitle options. Since the pop-up menus don't work while the movie is paused, you have no choice but to navigate through all the menus while the beginning of the movie plays beneath them, and then skip back to the start of the chapter when you're done. The interface is far from user friendly.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The movie has a stark photographic style that emphasizes contrasty images, drab colors, and quite a lot of film grain. The daughter's deep red coat is just about the only color that makes an impression, likely deliberately so. Shadow detail is disappointingly murky for such a dark movie. Edge enhancement artifacts are also visible throughout. The grain usually retains a reasonable film-like texture, though the effects of electronic sharpening render it quite noisy in spots. For example, there's a shot at approximately 25:50 that's relatively clean except for a computer monitor in the background that jumps with video noise. Real film grain wouldn't behave like that.
The picture in general has only a fair sense of detail and many scenes look overly filtered. That said, despite these issues I was surprised to find that my impression at the end was of a decent film-like appearance. The heavy grain actually seems to clear up as the movie progresses, and colors turn warmer as well. This is neither the best nor the worst-looking movie available on Blu-ray to date. I'd probably think a lot higher of it if not for the edge enhancement problems.
The Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
This is a very fine sound mix with pleasing fidelity. Dialogue is always clear and sound effects are crisply recorded. The surround channels are frequently active with water noises and other spooky effects filling the soundstage. The sound designers avoid too many cheap stinger scares, focusing instead on creating a subtly enveloping aural environment. The soundtrack is creepy and effective rather than bombastic, and sounds great on this Blu-ray disc.
Subs & Dubs:
The Dark Water remake is a pleasant surprise, more of a compelling character drama than the cheap horror flick I was expecting. I actually found it an improvement over the Japanese original. The Blu-ray disc has decent if unexceptional picture quality, but still merits a recommendation.