Japanese Water Torture

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A soiled kid's bag, a creaky elevator, leaks from the ceiling: not the sort of phenomena likely to scare movie audiences out of their seats. But the great horror films have always laced the stuff of ordinary life with a dose of terror, for the deepest fears derive not from the wildly grotesque, but from the slightly twisted familiar. Terror is a thing of the mind, not the eyes, and the line between mundane normality and unbridled horror can be as thin as that between dusk and night.

What Japanese horror master Hideo Nakata did for TV sets in his 1998 blockbuster The Ring, he does for drippy faucets in his latest film Dark Water, a tale of urban anxiety, domestic agony and spookily bad plumbing. Stressed-out single mother Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) and her five-year-old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno) move into an apartment building with a serious humidity problem and a demonic elevator on loan from Poltergeist. They stick around even after a sinister water stain begins expanding on the ceiling and they learn that their building was once inhabited by a young girl who mysteriously disappeared. This lost girl happens to be the owner of the red bag that Yoshimi keeps throwing out — and that reappears each time like a drowned body bobbing back to the surface.

Meanwhile, both mother and daughter keep using that eerily temperamental elevator. Seems like the usual poor decision-making skills from horror film characters. But we soon learn that Yoshimi is trapped in her situation by a bitter custody dispute with her ex-husband; moving her daughter to a new school might look bad to the court. If they want to stay together, she and Ikuko have nowhere left to run, even when a demanding juvenile ghost starts making very physical appearances.

Kuroki, who barely gets the chance to breathe for the entire movie, turns in a heart-wrenching portrayal of maternal sacrifice. Water — in the bathtub, in a sullen black canal that oozes past the apartment building, in the rain that falls constantly throughout the film — is omnipresent. The flat itself seems to cry. This is a horror movie more tragic than terrifying.

Director Nakata, like his characters, makes some missteps. Too many of his scares depend on Kuroki's or Kanno's agonizingly long head turns — a stilted device that feels like little more than Hitchcock-by-numbers. The film's climax — unsurprisingly, it involves a lot of water — is marred by an implausible and unnecessary epilogue. It makes you wonder if Nakata is weary of the horror genre — or, perhaps, is evolving beyond it. Suspenseful as it is, Dark Water is more successful as a portrait of the bond between a single mother and her child in alienating urban Japan. The deeply felt domestic pathos raises the movie above the average thriller.

Still, Dark Water has enough scares to keep your knuckles white. Japanese films have often sought out the ghost within the machine of modern life; and this one creepily finds the ghost within the water fixtures. If nothing else, Dark Water is a reminder that when flat-hunting, you should always watch out for lousy plumbing — and vengeful child spirits.