At the beginning of Dark Water, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), accompanied by her young daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade), is given a tour of what may be the single cruddiest apartment building the characters in a Hollywood thriller have ever been forced to occupy. The brackish lobby, with its puke-green fluorescent glare and surly super (Pete Postle-thwaite), is like something out of a public-housing project in Krakow during the late ’60s. The elevator is a lurching steel box, and the residential unit, with its blocky claustrophobic chambers, corroded fake-wood cabinets, and rotten black water spot on the ceiling, is about as inviting as a flophouse for crackheads. In Dark Water, you want to yell ”Dear God, don’t go in the bedroom!” — not because of the ghosts, but because of the ugliness of the room.
The building in question is on Roosevelt Island, a residential enclave in the middle of the East River, just off the ritziest side of Manhattan. It’s a five-minute tram ride to the center of the city, but how plausible is it that a New Yorker as beautiful and poised as Dahlia, played by Connelly with all her baby fat burned away (and her passive softness along with it), would choose to move her child into such a decrepit hellhole? It doesn’t seem likely at all, yet Walter Salles, the craftsmanly and humane Brazilian director of The Motorcycle Diaries, here making his first Hollywood genre film, intends for us to be shocked in that very way. Dahlia, who is in the middle of a bitter custody battle, has no money and no career (she gets a job pushing papers at an X-ray clinic), and she needs to live in a place that’s close to a decent public school. Salles realizes the rotten dank desperation of her life so vividly that he has made, in effect, the first collapse-of-the-middle-class horror movie.
Dark Water is a shudder-by-numbers pseudo-J-horror gothic, full of supernatural stunts you feel as if you’ve seen before the movie even gets to them (ooooh, running water! Lots and lots of running water!). It’s one of those thrillers in which a little girl talks to an imaginary friend, who’s the spirit of the waif upstairs, who in turn echoes the abandoned little girl that Mommy used to be. All the tropes of abuse and vengeful victimhood are right in place, and, oh, does the dirty water gush: from faucets, tubs, washing machines, and from that spot on the ceiling. The real nightmare, however, is hardly metaphysical. It’s the fear of being stuck in a home this awful without a plumber.