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Friday, Nov. 11, 2005
A home that's in a real bad state
By KAORI SHOJI
Cramped quarters. Ugly buildings. Asphalt. Bad plumbing. Unceasing rain. It probably sounds all too familiar to those of us living in this part of the world. It is also the backdrop to "Dark Water," a U.S. remake of the Japanese horror film "Honogurai Mizu no Sokokara" (directed by Hideo Nakata; original novel by Koji Suzuki, of "Ringu" fame).
In the original, a recently divorced single mom and her small daughter come to live in an apartment complex to discover a mysterious stain spreading in the corner of the ceiling. In this version, the premise is the same. If you're wondering where in America can one find the equivalent of a Tokyo apartment, "Dark Water" has the answer: Roosevelt Island, New York City. Though only a few subway stops away from Manhattan, Roosevelt Island is closed off from the city by the black, churning waters of the East River and characterized mainly by the rows of identical apartments, described by the real-estate agent in the film as: "built in the . . . ah, brutalist style."
As remakes go, "Dark Water" is a job well done -- the scariness and tension dials are turned up high, while the explanatory flashbacks and dialogue are cut down to the bare essentials. The result is a rare horror film. Grown-up and subtle. Don't expect lots of blood flying around or one of those nervy, nails-on-blackboard-type screams. Director Walter Salles ("Motorcycle Diaries") doesn't need to resort to the usual tactics. The perpetual rain and the paranoia inside the heart and brain of protagonist Dahlia (excellently portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) makes the point.
Ah, the rain: the mid-winter, East Coast rain that refuses to quit. According to the production notes, the damp and chill were such that the cast had to take quick hot baths in between takes to sustain their health (and sanity).
"Dark Water" was shot almost entirely on Roosevelt Island and you can almost feel the freezing rain pelting down on Dahlia's cheap umbrella as she struggles to bring home her daughter, herself and the groceries all in one piece. This being New York, the caretaker (Pete Postlethwaite) in her building is a brooding, heavily accented man of uncertain nationality who goes by the name of "Mr. Veeck," and refuses to help her with anything, not even a malevolent dark stain that appears on her bedroom ceiling and drips brown fluid.
The whole building, it seems, is drenched in dishwater gloom and this evokes Dahlia's most painful memory -- standing outside her school in the rain, waiting for her flighty, hippie mom to pick her up. It appears Dahlia had gone from being a neglected child to unhappy wife -- she is currently in a custody battle with ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott), after accusing him of having an affair and "not caring anything" about their 6-year-old daughter, Cecilia (Ariel Gade).
In order to gain custody, she must find an apartment with a separate bedroom, and she also must get an independent source of income. Manhattan rents make that an impossibility and since Kyle has opted to live in Jersey City, Dahlia had deliberately gone in the other direction and looked for a place on Roosevelt Island.
John C. Reilly plays a real-estate agent from hell (and in New York that's saying a lot), who takes Dahlia through the apartment and is quick to remark on the "great light and view from the windows." But this consists mainly of the depressing facade of the opposite (identical) building and not much else. When he can't locate a nonexistent "second bedroom," he glibly tells her the living room can "double up" as another sleeping quarter. When she complains about the leak from the ceiling he informs her that he'll "get on to it, first thing in the morning!" and then goes out to lunch.
You feel like watching "Dark Water" just for the apartment references -- it's so rare to see a Hollywood movie deal with the New York real-estate situation in such a knowing, candid way. (Even Dahlia's furniture reeks of reality: a drab, gray sofa, a rinky, glass-top coffee table.) Dahlia's fast-talking divorce lawyer Platzer (Tim Roth) has found a way to beat the Manhattan rent problem by not paying any. He simply careens around the city in his car in which he has a laptop and two phones.
Unfortunately, "Dark Water" gets a bit mired in the real-estate details, taking a whole lot of time getting to the horror bits that, in the end, prove to be less interesting than that "dripping leak."
Such is another symptom of big-city living: things like horrible pasts, ghosts, unsolved murders. . . . They just don't have as much impact as the all-encompassing, scary issue of rent and bad plumbing.