Divorced parents beware: your children may be at risk if you do not keep up repayments on your utility bills.
It's been five years since Hideo Nakata won huge kudos for his inventive and atmospheric chiller Ringu (not to be confused with the altogether less intimidating children's series Pingu), and in that time he's delivered a sequel, a couple of thrillers, a teen flick, a documentary of a famous Japanese porn director, watched his opus be remade as a surprisingly competent Hollywood effort, but, to everyone's dismay, not returned to more original horror material. Booo! It came as quite an exciting announcement, then, that he would be returning to his celebrated horror mode for 2002's Honogurai mizu no soko kara, or Dark Water as we shall be referring to it for simplicity's sake.
The story centres around the struggle of a young single mother called Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki), herself the daughter of a broken home, to win custody of her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Currently unemployed, Yoshimi is forced to take up residency with her daughter in a rundown apartment block whilst she searches for a job. Initially reluctant to move, Yoshimi's fear of losing her daughter for want of a home compels her to settle in until they can find somewhere better. All initially seems well until Yoshimi begins to notice some odd occurrences around the building...
Let's sort something out straight away. Dark Water is not as good as Ringu. The central premise is promising, but not as original or immediate as that film, and neither does it deliver quite the sense of impending menace. This is not to say the film isn't worth the effort, as one look at Tippy's review of Darkness Falls should put things in perspective, it's just that after such a blazing appearance on the horror scene followed by a four year scare-hiatus everyone was expecting a little more oomph from this effort.
So why does Dark Water not so much fail as not succeed so admirably? Well, primarily the greatest issue is the pacing. Ringu wasn't exactly the Speed of the horror genre, but it was consistently engaging enough to engross the viewer in the detective work aspect of the plot when the frights died down. The parallel here is with the child custody battle and the implication that Yoshimi may or may not be psychologically unbalanced. Since the latter is largely criminally neglected (we are never really in doubt as to wether she is imagining this or not), the weight of the film rests on the custody battle which is neither particularly tense nor compelling.
Little Ikuko is a charming wee lass, no doubt, but we rarely feel she is in danger of being taken away by her father. Likewise the supposedly malevolent presence of a young girl who went missing nearby some years ago is certainly spooky, but rarely feels evil bar one chilling scene at the kindergarten Ikuko attends. It's a shame that so much potential exists in the script, but that in 100 minutes Nakata fails to capitalise on the majority of it. Whilst I lament the inefficiency of so much of the movie's running time, let me not forget that there was a hell of a lot I really did enjoy as well.
I certainly won't entertain the notion that Dark Water is not atmospheric, because in terms of the general ambience the film creates it's almost on a par with Ringu. As one might expect from the title, water forms something of a theme throughout the film, and Nakata certainly manages to imbue it with a character of it's own. From the pervasive dripping inside Yoshimi's apartment that keeps her and her daughter awake at nights, to the near constant downpour outside that seems to herald some kind of impending evil, and the full-on terror of the apartment upstairs that resembles an indoor waterfall, there's certainly something unsettling about Nakata's treatment (no pun intended) of the ubiquitous liquid.
Another area where the film scores highly, and something else it shares with Ringu, is the sound design. In an era where no other horror director seemingly understands the importance of ambient sound effects and scoring, Hideo Nakata is the John Carpenter of his day. The understated recurring music that underlies the film is both wonderfully atmospheric and utterly chilling. All low frequency metal chimes, it is simple yet horrendously effective, and says a lot about how little pretty much every other director working in the genre understands about building tension through music. There are no sudden orchestral stabs here to frighten the audience, just a sense of impending evil that unsettles constantly, arguably to a much greater effect.
Other small points of notice can be found littered throughout the film that add to the chilling atmos, such as the discovery of a "missing" poster for the little girl mentioned earlier where her features are spookily absent or obscured, but the overall effect is unfortunately lacking when compared to Ringu. The recurring presence of said girls' schoolbag is obviously intended to herald danger and add to the foreboding, but unfortunately never really works.
Performances are generally of a very high standard, something I always find pleasing in a genre which most actors probably find hard to take seriously, and little Rio Kanno is superb as the 5-year old Ikuko behaving naturalistically as she settles in and increasingly disturbed and ethereal as events progress. It's fair to say the actors don't have to carry any of the blame, such as there is, for the movie, rather Nakata's direction and Koji Suzuki's adaptation from the novel are ultimately the failing factors.
I'm being incredibly unfair about all this, I know, as I'd probably award this a 4 if it were a British or American effort, it's just that seeing all of the elements in place yet failing to blend properly together comes as such a huge disappointment. The film's atmosphere nearly alleviates the problem, but just falls short of the mark due to pacing issues and a weak custody battle element. As a moral tale about parental responsibility and the effect of separation on children Dark Water fails completely. As a horror movie it very nearly succeeds, but ultimately represents another case of wasted could-have-been opportunity. A crying shame.
Craig Disko has awarded Dark Water 3 out of 5 Drip Drop Disko Doo-das.
Rio Kanno (young Ikuko Matsubara)
Asami Mizukawa (teenage Ikuko Hamada)
Fumiyo Kohinata (Kumio Hamada)