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Dark Water (2002)

Arrow Video // PG-13 // October 11, 2016
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 7, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The spooked-out feeling someone gets after being told a ghost tale around the campfire doesn't easily translate off of the big screen, since that incremental, anticipatory pace that has listeners hanging on every word from the storyteller can flicker and fade over an hour and a half. Japanese filmmakers, notably the works of Hideo Nakata, discovered how to get it right with consistently growing ambience and relatable dramatic storytelling, weaving together growing supernatural dread with personal reflections upon the people experiencing the events. Like those campfire stories, these also tend to follow a similar rhythm that becomes recognizable after hearing a few others, even giving birth to a horror subgenre: that of the "stringy-hair ghost girl". One of such tales, Dark Water, might be bogged down by resemblances to other stories of its ilk, but it drips with enough heavy atmosphere and parental psychological tension to drown out its familiarity.

Hideo Nakata's follow-up to his adaptation of the Ringu novels also draws from one of Koji Suzuki's works: "Dark Water", a short story. In it, a mother, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), desperate for inexpensive options amid a tough divorce takes a unit in a run-down apartment complex, an endlessly gray and humid building whose less-appealing traits are outweighed by its cost and her immediacy to find a home for her daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Despite her devotion and love for her daughter, Yoshimi struggles to make ends meet, often leaving young Ikuko waiting for long hours after school. If that weren't enough, they've also started to deal with a leak coming from their ceiling, a problem unhelped by the management of the complex. When strange sounds and events start to happen in the apartment complex, the activity of children who don't live there and cannot be found, it leaves one to wonder whether they're really happening or figments off Yoshimi's psyche.

Like the stained, dripping patch that stretches across the ceiling of the apartment, a murky and distressing mood gradually seeps into Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, using the overbearing grayness of the apartment to capture the film's gloomy intentions. Persistent rainfall and claustrophobic echoes within Yoshimi's home thicken the atmosphere, yet they're not designed for jump-scares. Instead, director Nakata draws the audience deeper into the ominous living conditions without making an effort to overlty startle those watching, using child disappearance posters, elevator surveillance footage, and a curiously bright red backpack for milder chills that double as extended world-building around a grander mystery. Jolts aren't waiting around the corners of the dampened building; instead, new facets of their paranormal living conditions emerge with what seems like each passing day, and the way it provokes curiosities over the building's history taps into its own kind of slow-rising, immersive dread.

These horror elements in Dark Water tend to be subtle at first, fading into the background to such a degree that they hide underneath the drama involving Yoshimi's struggles with parenting and divorce. It'd be understandable if one's interest level were to ebb during the film's mid-section, though: like many divorces, there are recurring arguments and discussions about the state of the proceedings, which slosh around within the film's intentionally washed-out visual style. What keeps Nakata's film afloat during that period comes in the psychology of the mother, whose history with mental illness adds a layer of ambiguity atop the bumps and drips that she's experiencing in her new home. The restrained performance from Hitomi Kuroki revolves around weakening composure and frustration as a mother, heightened by a tender -- if melodramatic -- glimpse at how her daughter keeps her from snapping, her eyes widening and posture stiffening as the supernatural curios further approach the surface.

With time, the enigmatic mysteries of Dark Water become too much for the walls of the apartment to hold back, flooding the end of the film with insidious spectral anomalies and disturbing revelations about the eerie aspects -- posters, bags, footsteps -- sprinkled throughout. Rising chills and melancholy overtones latch onto the story's distinctive elements, culminating in a dimly-lit, murky plunge into the dominion of the supernatural, hinged on paternal intuition and sacrifice in the presence of the paranormal. While it's difficult to overlook the parallels between its climactic events and those found at the bottom of the well in Nakata's own Ringu, Dark Water ends on a gloomier note , connecting its obscured details into a bleak, breathless conclusion reminiscent of the kind of somber exclamation point one might expect from those campfire stories. There are scarier "ghost girl" tales out there, but this one embraces the right mixture of swelling atmosphere and dramatic undercurrent for what it sets out to accomplish.

The Blu-ray:

Dark Water shores up on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in a classy, clear two-disc presentation on a swinging tray, with Disc Two being a DVD Copy of the film. Newly commissioned artwork adorns the outside of the package, but can be reversed to standard poster artwork for the film if desired. A Booklet can be found inside, which contains cast credits, information about the transfer/restoration, and two written pieces: "Dead Wet Girls" by David Kalat, and "An Uncommon Remake" by Michael Gingold.

Video and Audio:

Dark Water should look fairly hazy and murky, but probably not as stagnant as it looks in this newly restored treatment from Arrow Video, a label that's quite reliable in terms of quality and accuracy. At most points, this 1080p AVC transfer looks bulky and flat, struggling underneath heavy compression and grain that drains the film of its depth. Fine details are few and far between; the weave of a sweater here, a metal latch there, water droplets and brownish distortion at a few points. Skin tones carry satisfying warmth, exhibiting a strong amount of flush in the cheeks where applicable, while bright reds in lights and little bags are boldly present against the grayish-tan, washed-out surroundings. Slight gradations in color -- blues, pinks, and purples in garments -- pop up as well, which look appropriately saturated alongside the film's demands. Black levels are almost never black, appearing gray and elevated at many points and accentuating the cumbersome grain present in the transfer, too. A handful of details, strong blasts of color, and reputable handling of detail around curves and contours make this worth upgrading to HD, but not significantly so.

Luckily, the assertiveness of Dark Water's haunting ambience makes up for the watery visuals, captured here in a fierce, dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Rushing water, rainfall, and droplets are common elements throughout the film, and they all engage the surround channels with an incredible amount of breadth and clarity. There's more to the track than that, though, as the hefty clanking and movement of an elevator and the pounding of footsteps from an overhead apartment engage lower-end responsiveness to great effect, as well as well-pitched clarity in metallic rattles and thumps. The eerie music stretches across the front and rear channels splendidly, accentuating the desired atmosphere, while high-pitched elements in clanking glass and screams remain free of any distortion. If there's a complaint to be had, it'd be with the overly aggressive boom of the bass channel at many points, which can get overly unruly and room-filling. Dark Water sounds fantastic, though, and the English subtitles are rock-solid, too.

Special Features:

Arrow Video's robust slate of extras begins with an Interview with Hideo Nakata (26:03, 16x9 HD) recorded exclusively for the label earlier in 2016, where he discusses his roots with Nikkatsu and his influences in the horror genre, creating atmosphere and the differences in shooting between the USA and Japan, and the creation of the "J-Horror boom". Mixed with production photos, it's a rather solid interview with the director. Also shot exclusively for the label is an Interview with Koji Suzuki (20:20, 16x9 HD), author of the short story "Dark Water" (and the "Ringu" series), who also delves into his writing history, inspirations, and process of creating a horror story, as well as his history with the Ringu series and his stipulations for film adaptations of his works. Rounding out Arrow's new recorded conversations is an Interview with Junichiro Hayashi (19:16, 16x9 HD), where the cinematographer takes a relatively general approach to discussing his history with the business and working with Hideo Nakata.

The rest of the extras are legacy supplemental material, starting off with fifteen minutes of raw Making of Dark Water (15:50, 4x3 HD) footage, which includes picture-in-picture comparisons with some shots from the film. It offers a solid glimpse into a lot of production design, as well as viewing director Hideo Nakata in action on the set. Also included are a trio of archive interviews with Hitomi Kuroki (7:59, 4x3 HD), actress Asami Mizukawa (4:38, 4x3 HD), and musician Shikao Suga (2:54, 4x3 HD), as well as a Trailer (1:13, 16x9 HD), a Teaser (:37, 16x9 HD), and a trio of TV Spots (:50, 4x3 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Hideo Nakata's Dark Water doesn't pack as much of a suspenseful punch as other entries in the J-Horror subgenre, but the heaviness of its supernatural moisture-soaked atmosphere and the melancholy angle of its parental theatrics fill that void. It's less of a "horror movie" and more of a macabre supernatural drama with spikes in tension, and it mostly excels within that niche, despite its recognizable plotting and drawn-out middle. Arrow Video's Blu-ray sports a murky-yet-tolerable visual transfer alongside an exceptional audio treatment, and comes with about an hour of new interviews and fifteen minutes of solid making-of material. Mildly Recommended for the whole package.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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