Christmas means different things to different people. This is practically a truism, of course, but it has been brought home to me in recent weeks by the local art house cinema’s selection for their films for Christmas season. Some of the usual suspects were in there, like Scrooge, but on the whole there was a rather different and unexpected flavour to the proceedings: as regular visitors may recall, things kicked off with a very welcome revival of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and went on to include Night of the Demon and Under the Shadow, before concluding with Hideo Nakata’s 2002 film Dark Water. A fairly sustained assault by supernatural forces of darkness upon the innocent and unwary, then – in the words of Thea Gilmore, that’ll be Christmas.
I wanted to take my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent along to see Under the Shadow again, to see if he could identify any of the cultural subtexts which I suspected had eluded me the first time I saw it. But we couldn’t make that date so we ended up going to see Dark Water instead, which was the first time for both of us.
The original title of this movie, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, translates as From the Depths of Dark Water, which is perhaps a bit more florid than the English version but still tells you everything that you need to know – it gets very dark and there’s water by the bucketful. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi, a Japanese housewife in the midst of very acrimonious divorce proceedings, central to which is the custody settlement for her young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Things are, frankly, starting to get to Yoshimi, and she is very relieved when she manages to find an apartment for the two of them to live in. The building is old and slightly decrepit, and there’s a bit of a damp patch on the ceiling in Ikuko’s bedroom, but you can’t have everything, can you, and how bad can things actually get?
Well, pretty bad, to be perfectly honest: Ikuko finds a child’s bag on the roof, which absolutely refuses to be thrown away no matter how many times Yoshimi tries to get of it. The damp gets more and more pervasive. Yoshimi begins to glimpse a small, raincoated figure around the building, and it seems to be closing in on the pair of them. Then she hears the story of how a young girl disappeared from the same building a few years earlier and begins to suspect her daughter may be in much greater peril than she previously suspected…
In the end, I confided to my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent that missing Under the Shadow in favour of Dark Water was probably for the best, not just because Dark Water is a rather more effective and subtle film, but also because it clearly inspired and had a huge influence upon the more recent movie. Both concern an effectively single mother and her daughter, trapped in an almost derelict and partly deserted residential building, surrounded by useless and unhelpful individuals, with a relentless supernatural force encroaching into their lives. Even one of the key images of Dark Water, the spreading damp, is sort-of replicated in the form of the bomb-damaged ceiling of Under the Shadow.
It’s perfectly understandable that other directors should feel moved to draw upon the work of Hideo Nakata, for he is one the leading exponents of the cinematic ghost story of the modern era – as well as Dark Water, he also originated the seemingly-endless Ringu franchise – and Dark Water is unquestionably a very unsettling film to watch. Well, more than unsettling, in places it’s downright scary.
There’s a slightly odd thing going on here where you know well in advance that Nakata is going to be using certain devices to achieve his effects – you just know there’s going to be some business involving mysterious figures appearing on the antiquated CCTV system of the apartment block, and so it proves, and also some fun and games with the decrepit old lift, and once again this comes to pass – and yet when the moments come you are as rattled as if it was a complete surprise to you. It may just be down to the sheer virtuosity of the director, and perhaps also the way in which he conjures up such an oppressive atmosphere from virtually the first moment of the film. The relentless rain and puddles quickly acquire a greater significance and their own set of associations – by the end of the film a leaky tap has basically become a portent of utter dread.
That said, I feel I have to say that my companion didn’t find the film quite as effective as I did, and we had a lively discussion about the film’s employment of various horror movie and ghost story tropes – was it really necessary, we discussed, for Yoshimi to be quite so psychologically fragile and prone to alarm? In a way it helps to drive the story along, because people who make bad decisions are worth their weight in gold to the writers of horror movies, and perhaps Nakata is also trying to leave a little bit of ambiguity as to what exactly is going on – to paraphrase Peter Bradshaw’s comment when discussing the US remake of this film, just exactly what kind of help does Yoshimi need – a psychiatrist, an exorcist, or a plumber?
Nevertheless, this film does have some properly spooky moments, even if I might also suggest it has a few issues with pacing – having ramped up the tension in the second act, Nakata perhaps lets it slack off just a bit too much before the climax, while the concluding sequence which acts as a coda perhaps goes on just a little too long to be completely effective. Despite all this, I would still say Dark Water is a hugely accomplished and very potent ghost story, with some superbly effective surreal flourishes as it reaches its climax, and just enough depth and ambiguity to linger in the memory once concluded. Certainly a modern classic, and a very influential film.