With its overqualified cast and prestigious director (The Motorcycle Diaries' Walter Salles) and screenwriter (Rafael Yglesias, author of Fearless, both the novel and the screenplay), Dark Water slaps an austere high-art veneer on yet another commercially savvy J-horror remake. Too bad they're eventually undone by a climax that indulges in all the familiar fright-film hackery the film's superior first hour so assiduously avoids. In the tug of war between commerce and art, commerce wins out in the end, though art puts up one hell of a fight.
In an impressive performance, Jennifer Connelly stars as an emotionally shaken mother who struggles mightily to find her footing amid an acrimonious divorce and ensuing custody battle. Resigning herself to a much grimmer existence, Connelly moves with her adorable young daughter to a sinister tenement haunted by more than just terrible plumbing and urban decay. For much of its duration, Dark Water generates creepy, atmospheric dread by subtly ratcheting up the most sinister aspects of urban living, from run-down elevators with burnt-off buttons to belligerent handymen to the cold, isolating brutality of so much urban architecture. Thanks in no small part to Connelly's doe-eyed vulnerability, Dark Water is at its cerebral, atmospheric best a horror movie about the terror and isolation of being a poor, depressed single parent largely without resources in a frightening city devoid of comfort and security.
But soon enough, the commercial calculation kicks in and Dark Water becomes yet another fright flick about an adorable moppet with a possibly dead imaginary friend, and the requisite J-horror imagery kicks in, usually through the discolored H2O of the title. At first, Connelly's relationship with her daughter is sketched with disarming tenderness, but as the film trudges towards its big revelation, the daughter becomes little more than a plot device, a facile way to steer the film into the realm of the gimmicky, manipulative ghost story. Throw in a little overwrought Oedipal melodrama and a few red herrings involving creepy, menacing teens, and Dark Water devolves into something resembling genre schlock, albeit the kind featuring zesty supporting performances from the classy, Oscar-nominated likes of John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, and Pete Postlethwaite. Though Dark Water was made with a great deal of craft and nuance, its conventions are bound to play to a weary audience, which can be forgiven for wishing for a moratorium on precociously creepy children who see dead people.