Based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, as was the director's international hit Ringu, the slow pace of Dark Water & the amount of time it takes to seriously make the idea of a leaky ceiling seem horrific makes the first 45 minutes to an hour a mite tedious.
The main story is not so much about the haunting during this long patch of film time, but about an emotionally unstable mother (Hitomi Kuroki) trying to hold it together while being divorced, striving despite her instability to keep custody of her daughter (Rio Kanno turning in a remarkable child-actor performance), dealing with an unpleasant ex-husband, & coping with a cheap & ugly apartment with appalling plumbing & a landlord who couldn't care less.
The mother is not an interesting enough actress to make these real-life horrors captivating, & it is only when it is finally clear that the girl-ghost is a threat to to the daughter does the story finally get some meat on it.
The last half hour or so gets interesting as it becomes increasingly about the haunting. But even when it gets down to the meat of the story, events that couldn't possibly take more than a minute are dragged on & on & on. The director must've thought it was suspensful to take five minutes instead of one to climb a ladder part way, but it killed its own suspense by seeming like a good moment to run to the bathroom.
The soundtrack is one of the most manipulative & obvious ever concocted. When we're supposed to feel suspense such as the story is not successfully conveying, there is tense music to make up for the fact that we wouldn't otherwise know this long dull patch was supposed to be suspenseful. When the mother very suddenly without much prelude becomes sympathetic to the wet & faceless child ghost, the music goes wackily sentimental, in case we didn't notice the woman's mood had changed.
The little girl vanished in 1999, a year before the main events of the film, so the emotional coda labeled "Ten Years Later" takes place in the near future, when cell phones & fashion will not have changed one whit. The nearly grown daughter (now played by Asami Mizukawa) returns to the slummy apartment house of her childhood's ghostly experience, & discovers her mother still living there (or haunting there) all these years. This sequence is effective only if you don't think about the improbability of this building being abandoned & undeveloped for a decade, & accept the idea that nothing in the world would look one bit different after a decade. Plus this coda moves at the same sluggardly pace as the bulk of the movie, milking a small emotion. Then as the screen goes black, the girl's voice-over in one concise sentence explains what happened, as even the director wasn't sure he had made any of it clear.
The film is moderately entertaining especially during the last third, but rather tepid due to its exaggeratedly slow pacing. The horror largely fails when the most icky thing that happens is getting hair in a glass of water & not being able to get rid of a child's reappearing backpack. The ghost when we finally get a good look at her looks hokey & it's once again the manipulative soundtrack not the acting or film image that startles.
As a supernatural mystery it is internally coherent, which cannot be said of many of the new Japanese horror cinema; it is certainly more coherent than Ringu. But it is also ultra-simple & there are no suprises in the mystery per se, so dragging it out isn't as interesting as was the case for the more convolutedly bizarre mystery underlying Ringu. The most effective bits in Dark Water are not the alleged suspense or horror, but the emotional content derived from the mental state of the central character. Climactic moments are in the elevator when suddenly we are shown sympathy for the ghost & the calm coda of revisiting the location of the haunting. But even these elements are only luke warm.
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