Japanese horror remakes are all the rage these days. And for good reason. Most American horror films rely on one of two key ingredients: campy self-awareness or extreme, grotesque violence. These days, most often the two are combined to create an unpleasant mess that appeals almost exclusively to a teenage male audience.
But Japanese horror is played straight, relying on mood, texture, slowly developed dread. Following in the footsteps of The Ring and The Grudge comes Dark Water (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images, and brief language). Extending even further the emerging genre's reputation for comparative class, the film is directed by Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) and stars Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tim Roth-all names more recognizable to those who read The New Yorker than to those who read Rolling Stone.
The ending of Dark Water demonstrates that class is a limited commodity among horror films, as the measured, brooding story devolves into something much more recognizable and much less expressive. But until the filmmakers reach that point of needing to tie up loose ends and provide some traditional horror-film scares, Dark Water is sometimes eloquently effective at using familiar, approachable emotions and settings as a currency for fear.
Ms. Connelly plays Dahlia, a woman undergoing a bitterly painful divorce from an unfaithful husband. She moves herself and her only child, daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade), to New York's Roosevelt Island, leasing a depressingly dingy one bedroom apartment. Dahlia's new building possesses many faults, but most notable is a dark, growing wet spot on Dahlia's ceiling.
In the midst of helping her daughter adjust to a new school, find a job, and work through the messy details of child custody, Dahlia is tormented by her increasingly soggy apartment and strange noises from the supposedly empty upstairs apartment. She receives little help from apartment handyman Veeck (Mr. Postlethwaite) or manager Murray (Mr. Reilly), but does find an ally in her oddly mobile divorce lawyer (Mr. Roth).
Water, unsurprisingly, is a major theme in this film. The weather runs the entire gamut from steady rain to light drizzle to downpour-and the skies are always cloudy. It's actually a bit of a shock to the system to emerge from the theater in bright sunlight or even a crisp, clear, night sky. Water pours from faucets, toilets, showers, and washers. Overdone, yes, but Mr. Salles and cinematographer Affonso Beato effectively make ordinary, everyday items full of sinister mystery.
More interesting than the water motif, though, is the common Japanese horror theme of the evil (one could translate this as sin) of one generation being visited on the next, and the way the consequences of violent or neglectful acts are tied to both family and place. Dark Water is most effective when it attaches Dahlia's terror not just to creepy noises or wet spots on the wall, but, beneath that, to her own fears relating to her traumatic childhood, self-doubts about her ability to care for her daughter on her own, or distrust of her vindictive husband.
"Some mysteries were never meant to be solved," reads Dark Water's tag line. The filmmakers would have been smart to listen to that warning themselves before wrapping up this story. The unknown is much more frightening than the known, and some ambiguity in the conclusion would have extended Dark Water's claim on both class and the more provocative themes it explores. But those not inherently uncomfortable with a ghost story may enjoy the elements a skilled filmmaker can bring to a tired, often repulsive genre.