Undermarked Oversights: Dark Water (2002)

The spooked-out feeling someone gets after being told a ghost tale around the campfire doesn't easily translate off of the big screen, since that incremental, anticipatory pace that has listeners hanging on every word from the storyteller can flicker and fade over an hour and a half. Japanese filmmakers, notably the works of Hideo Nakata, discovered how to get it right with consistently growing ambience and relatable dramatic storytelling, weaving together growing supernatural dread with personal reflections upon the people experiencing the events. Like those campfire stories, these also tend to follow a similar rhythm that becomes recognizable after hearing a few others, even giving birth to a horror subgenre: that of the "stringy-hair ghost girl". One of such tales, Dark Water, might be bogged down by resemblances to other stories of its ilk, but it drips with enough heavy atmosphere and parental psychological tension to drown out its familiarity.

Hideo Nakata's follow-up to his adaptation of the Ringu novels also draws from one of Koji Suzuki's works: "Dark Water", a short story. In it, a mother, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), desperate for inexpensive options amid a tough divorce takes a unit in a run-down apartment complex, an endlessly gray and humid building whose less-appealing traits are outweighed by its cost and her immediacy to find a home for her daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Despite her devotion and love for her daughter, Yoshimi struggles to make ends meet, often leaving young Ikuko waiting for long hours after school. If that weren't enough, they've also started to deal with a leak coming from their ceiling, a problem unhelped by the management of the complex. When strange sounds and events start to happen in the apartment complex, the activity of children who don't live there and cannot be found, it leaves one to wonder whether they're really happening or figments off Yoshimi's psyche.

Like the stained, dripping patch that stretches across the ceiling of the apartment, a murky and distressing mood gradually seeps into Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, using the overbearing grayness of the apartment to capture the film's gloomy intentions. Persistent rainfall and claustrophobic echoes within Yoshimi's home thicken the atmosphere, yet they're not designed for jump-scares. Instead, director Nakata draws the audience deeper into the ominous living conditions without making an effort to overlty startle those watching, using child disappearance posters, elevator surveillance footage, and a curiously bright red backpack for milder chills that double as extended world-building around a grander mystery. Jolts aren't waiting around the corners of the dampened building; instead, new facets of their paranormal living conditions emerge with what seems like each passing day, and the way it provokes curiosities over the building's history taps into its own kind of slow-rising, immersive dread.

These horror elements in Dark Water tend to be subtle at first, fading into the background to such a degree that they hide underneath the drama involving Yoshimi's struggles with parenting and divorce. It'd be understandable if one's interest level were to ebb during the film's mid-section, though: like many divorces, there are recurring arguments and discussions about the state of the proceedings, which slosh around within the film's intentionally washed-out visual style. What keeps Nakata's film afloat during that period comes in the psychology of the mother, whose history with mental illness adds a layer of ambiguity atop the bumps and drips that she's experiencing in her new home. The restrained performance from Hitomi Kuroki revolves around weakening composure and frustration as a mother, heightened by a tender -- if melodramatic -- glimpse at how her daughter keeps her from snapping, her eyes widening and posture stiffening as the supernatural curios further approach the surface.

With time, the enigmatic mysteries of Dark Water become too much for the walls of the apartment to hold back, flooding the end of the film with insidious spectral anomalies and disturbing revelations about the eerie aspects -- posters, bags, footsteps -- sprinkled throughout. Rising chills and melancholy overtones latch onto the story's distinctive elements, culminating in a dimly-lit, murky plunge into the dominion of the supernatural, hinged on paternal intuition and sacrifice in the presence of the paranormal. While it's difficult to overlook the parallels between its climactic events and those found at the bottom of the well in Nakata's own Ringu, Dark Water ends on a gloomier note , connecting its obscured details into a bleak, breathless conclusion reminiscent of the kind of somber exclamation point one might expect from those campfire stories. There are scarier "ghost girl" tales out there, but this one embraces the right mixture of swelling atmosphere and dramatic undercurrent for what it sets out to accomplish.

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