by Ira W. Marnie
We open on a school yard. It is raining, heavily. Despite this, everyone in the school yard is talking happily. Parents are reunited with their children after a long day of separation. Inside the building, watching with a very mature expression, is young Yoshimi, whose mother has abandoned her. She feels alone, drenched in water, and tragic. We then cut to her as an adult, dealing with a dramatic divorce from her husband and a custody battle for her young daughter, Ikuko. Mother and daughter end up in a cheap apartment building, suffering the battlefield and scrutiny pressed upon them by her husband. While there, a ghost story begins to form. An abandoned child’s spirit, drowned in the water reservoir on the apartment’s roof begins to creep into their already distressed lives.
Dark Water, based on the short story “Floating Water” by famed author Koji Suzuki (also responsible for The Ring) is about the disruption of family, and the sacrifice a mother must make for the betterment of her child. It’s a claustrophobic, dense, and terrific work that speaks volumes of emotion while delivering tangible scares, which effectively jolts on repeated viewings.
It’s not only one of my favorite horror films, it’s one of my favorite movies. Oftentimes, it has been swept under the rug in favor of The Grudge or The Ring, and other popular examples of Japanese horror. Yet, it holds up as an emotionally charged jump into supernatural and relatable fear. With heavy motifs concerning parenthood, abandonment, and the claustrophobia of society's tendency to scrutinize motherhood, it's one that captures terror in a universal and humane way…which cannot be said for a majority of the recent offerings in the paranormal genre.
Koji Suzuki and director Hideo Nakata use water as a constant motif. The stereotypical “dead wet girl” seems to be their creation. And why shouldn’t they? Water is a useful tool when telling a tragic story. What better way to make a film teary then by forcing the walls themselves to cry? An apartment building blotched with despair and desperation. There is no contrast of emotion with environment…in Dark Water, they are one and the same.
When telling a story like this, it's important to note that it is a drama first, and a horror movie when it needs to be. There is no gore or violence, Suzuki seems to detest such things, even going so far as to have his heroine suffer a mental breakdown because she was made to read gruesome horror stories at her job as an editor. This story gets its sense of dread and fear from the unknown and the unavoidable. An abandoned purse that cannot be thrown away – no matter what, it always returns to the apartment - can be a more terrifying premise than a ghost jumping out with a loud noise. A stain on a perfectly white wall can be as ominous as a heavy cloud. A stray hair in a glass of water is as foreboding as a whispered threat. And then there is the film’s second-to-last act, which is laced with as much visual terror as it is heartfelt tragedy But these sequences do not make the entire movie. We are shown Ikuko and Yoshimi as they live day to day…we get a sense of Yoshimi’s stress, and the sacrifices she continuously makes for Ikuko. We see Ikuko at school, trying to enjoy childhood in the face of her mother’s struggle and the haunting that continues to disrupt their lives.
I feel like – and American films are especially guilty of this - movies that feature ghosts forget that the best way to make an effective horror movie is to let the audience forget that they are watching a horror movie. Carrie did this, by using high-school drama and a coming-of-age narrative to make its supernatural/revenge conclusion all the more effective and Hereditary gave us a family in the midst of tragedy to terrify us with its sudden leaps into satanic dread but neither of these are ghost stories – even though Hereditary deceptively glances into that territory. A ghost story that treats ghosts as nothing more than monsters that jump out at the film’s hero’s for the benefit of audience reactions is no ghost story…a ghost story evokes the lasting impressions people leave behind when they pass. A ghost story should be as much about humanity as it should be about what lies beyond it.
Dark Water understands this, and holds its scares for the right moments. This is a “thinking man’s” film, if I may be so vain as to use such an expression. It’s not one you watch for fun or with large groups of people. It’s one you must take in pensively, and sternly, and it’s all the more effective because it rewards your patience.
I won’t spoil the ending, because really…it must be seen. But it utilizes the acting talents of Hitomi Kuroki and the young Rio Kanno, who bring tears to the eyes while facing every symbol the film has barraged its audience with; water, abandonment, and forced separation. One twist leads to another shock, and each shock aims for the heart as much as it does the nerves.
I cannot recommend Dark Water enough. If you are looking for something to chill your blood, touch your heart, and reach deep into pools of realism while delivering supernatural horror…this is a film you must see.
See more from Ira on Instagram: @Fulltimehorrorjunkie