As I write this, 'The Grudge 2' has just opened to the tune of a $22 million box office weekend. Hardly a small number, but something of a comedown not only for the franchise, but for the wave of Japanese horror film remakes that has flooded Hollywood recently. Perhaps the barely-respectable opening for 'The Grudge 2' is a curtain call for the niche genre -- the film's final gross is certain to be a far cry from the $100 million-plus 'The Ring' and the original 'Grudge' scared up a few years back. Perhaps the era of the screaming dead kid in the bathtub is finally over -- maybe reimaginings of unseen low-budget Swedish snuff flicks are next?
In any case, you'd have to think back pretty hard to the summer of 2005 to remember 'Dark Water.' A perfectly respectable studio entry in the Japanese redux sweepstakes, it nevertheless sank without a trace at the worldwide box office. It's a polished and well-made (if unusually depressing and turgid) affair. As dank as sewage and about as much fun, 'Dark Water' reminds us that in horror, oppressive atmosphere and scares can only take you so far. If you don't have at least some glimmer of humanity to your story, audiences won't leave the theater with that all-important, post-fade-to-black sense of uplift -- and your film won't make any money.
Meet Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly). Haunted by the death of her abusive mother, and bruised and battered by her pending divorce to Kyle (Dougray Scott), she is hoping to start a new life with her five-year-old daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Unfortunately, apartment space for lower-class divorcees in New York is hard to come by, so Dahlia grabs the only rental she can find -- in a dilapidated old residential complex. Soon persistent leads of dark water, mysterious noises and ominous sightings begin to plague the family. Growing obsessed, Dahlia begins to piece together the murderous past of the abandoned complex. But is Dahlia seeing ghosts of past residents, or is she just going crazy?
I had two major problems with 'Dark Water.' The first is that however well-acted and competently directed (by Brazilian Walter Salles, making his American feature film debut) the narrative is dramatically inert. I'm all for atmosphere and a slow build-up, and I admire the film for taking its time to establish place and character, but after nearly 75 minutes of wound-up tension, the release had better be good or disappointment is inevitable. Unfortunately, we don't get much in the way of a satisfying reveal in 'Dark Water.' Most problematic is that Dahlia's backstory is far too thinly sketched to have much impact, so it becomes almost impossible to understand her motives. Connelly is also a bit too subdued here -- though a fine actress, she underplays Dahlia's growing madness almost to the point of obfuscation. This lady is so damn depressed and we never know why -- I just wanted to give her a bottle of sleeping pills so the movie would end already.
But my biggest gripe is the derivative iconography of all of these Japanese horror remakes. Once you've seen one creepy mute kid in the hallway, or an overflowing bathtub filled with ghost hair, you've seen them all. I also hark back to a 1979 film called 'The Changeling.' This underrated little gem starred George C. Scott as a widower who, after being visited by the apparition of a dead boy, must work to solve his murder and release his tortured spirit. If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it seems like 'The Ring' and 'The Grudge' and 'Dark Water' all ripped it off. I'm only inclined to give 'Dark Water' a barely passable grade because diehard genre fans may still want to give it a rent based on pure atmosphere alone. But while this stuff may have been creepy once, or even twice, by the time we get to the climax of 'Dark Water,' it is almost impossible to imagine that the filmmakers actually believed we'd fall for it again.
'Dark Water' was released in both the theatrical PG-13 and an Unrated version on standard-def DVD, but alas we only get the 105-minute theatrical cut here. Truth be told, the Unrated version was hardly any scarier, but still -- this is Blu-ray, and we should get the coolest version of the flick available.
That said, this is a very solid 2.35:1 widescreen, 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer. 'Dark Water' may be the most beautifully-photographed bad-looking movie ever, and I was generally impressed with the stability and consistency of this image. The source material is in excellent shape, with perfect blacks and intentionally muted if strong contrast across the entire grayscale. Granted, colors are confined to various shades of bile green, vomit yellow and poopy brown, but they are free of any apparent smearing or chroma noise. Detail ends up being quite good all things considered -- the transfer boasts a visible sense of depth throughout. Shadow delineation is also superior for a film this dark. I was generally able to make out fine details even in the darkest interiors. I can't say that I really enjoyed looking at much of 'Dark Water,' but given its intended oppressive visual style this transfer delivers the goods.
While I was satisfied with the video, the audio left me wanting for more atmosphere. Certainly, this is another very fine effort from Disney, and I continue to be thankful they are supporting uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtracks on their Blu-ray releases. But the sound design of "Dark Water' is -- like its story -- a bit too subdued for its own good.
Dynamics are perfectly respectable. Dialogue is always clear and distinct, even with Jennifer Connelly practically mumbling all of her lines. Frequency range is robust and natural across the board, and low end is healthy for this type of moody genre material. Surround use is a bit dull, though. I wanted more ambiance in the rears, and I have to ask -- if you could get Angelo Badalamenti to score your movie, wouldn't you want to exploit that to your fullest advantage? Alas, most of the mix here is undefined, with effects bleeding into the score, and little of it directed to the rears. This is far from a terrible soundtrack, but it is also only slightly better than average for a horror flick.
The extras on the standard-def DVD release of 'Dark Water' weren't extensive in the first place, so it's something of a puzzler that Disney didn't just port them over to the Blu-ray. I must also lament once again the lack of the Unrated cut of the film, as a horror film as weakly received as 'Dark Water' needs all the help it can get if it is going to be sucessfully resold to high-def enthusiasts. Go figure.
Anyway, we do get one of the four featurettes included on the DVD release. "Analyzing 'Dark Water's Sequences" dissects two scenes -- "Blue Robe" and "Wall of Water" -- though anyone even casually acquainted with modern CGI effects will find this far from awe-inspiring. Though some of the water stuff is cool, it reminded me of that old water-tentacle thing from 'The Abyss,' which was cutting-edge about, oh, fifteen years ago.
The only other extra is a collection of two Deleted Scenes -- "Dahlia at the Laundromat" and "Kyle and Ceci in the Car." Both character bits, nothing major is revealed. I was kinda bummed that the subplot involving Dahlia wasn't better fleshed out -- I thought perhaps much of the backstory had been cut, but it seems like even the script was lacking in that department.
Unfortunately, no theatrical trailers for 'Dark Water' are provided.
'Dark Water' is one of the more forgettable entries in the Japanese horror remake cycle. Despite a very fine cast and polished production values, the story does little to differentiate itself amongst better examples of the genre. As a Blu-ray release, the transfer appropriately reproduces the grim look of the film, though the soundtrack and supplements are no great shakes. Worth a rent for diehard genre fans, but I'll wait for the Blu-ray release of 'The Ring' instead, thank you very much.