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It’s tough finding an apartment in New York City


Although few horror flicks employ the city for their setting --- Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby may be the most famous and most important --- New York, especially Manhattan, provides a propitious location for the exploration of various themes and subtexts within the genre.

Sooner or later just about every conversation there turns to the subject of real estate (in fact, one of the topics of Polanski's picture), especially the apartment somebody needs, has found, or just missed out on, and of course, the astronomical rents. In Dark Water the apartment that a woman named Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) leases becomes in effect a major character and the source of the story's pervasive disquiet and ultimate terror.

The newly divorced Dahlia and her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) move into an apartment in a large complex on Roosevelt Island in the East River, which initially seems an appropriate location but of course rapidly turns sinister and menacing. Mysterious noises from the supposedly empty apartment directly above them disturb mother and daughter, the faucets sputter and spurt, and an alarming leak from above creates a huge black spot on the bedroom ceiling. Ceci acquires an imaginary friend, a little girl named Natasha who used to live in the leaking apartment.

Like a number of contemporary horror films, Dark Water generates a good deal of its emotional edginess from the claustrophobically intense familial situation, in this case, the single mother and daughter involved in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband. Again following current trends, Dahlia bears a considerable burden of pain from her own childhood, deriving from her rejection and desertion by an alcoholic mother.

Three suffering children in fact dominate the movie --- young Dahlia, Ceci, and Natasha --- sometimes merging into a single entity, as Dahlia, haunted as much by her own past as by the mysterious and frightening present, frequently dreams of herself as the lonely, abandoned child.

The movie's tension accumulates in the time-honored fashion, with the careful and gradual depiction of the sinister and frightening possibilities of the everyday. The elevator, the corridors, the lobby, the laundry room all acquire a steadily increasing sense of menace and provide innumerable small shocks to threaten Dahlia's precarious mental state. Worst of all, the leak rapidly grows larger, and the dark water of the title gushes from the faucets and wells up out of sinks and toilets, sometimes in reality, sometimes in Dahlia's and Ceci's imaginations.

The movie displays a New York very different from the familiar locations and recognizable landmarks. The location on Roosevelt Island, probably an unfamiliar place to most viewers, transforms everything else in the film. A five-minute subway ride and a slightly longer tram trip from Manhattan Island, the place seems disturbingly distant and foreign.

The movie's prologue, showing Dahlia as a child, opens in Seattle, and the weather from the Northwest apparently follows her East, so that it rains torrentially throughout, as if New York were Bombay in the monsoon season, establishing a pervasive sense of drabness and of course enough moisture to match all the water flowing in the apartment.

Unlike the usual sex and sensationalism of the genre, the powerful subtext of New York real estate creates quite another sense of horror in Dark Water, suggesting the constant frustration of tenants dealing with the people who control the leasing of apartments in the city. Dahlia must constantly nag the incompetent, recalcitrant building superintendent and the effusive, obsequious rental agent, who in the usual fashion tell her they will help and then of course do nothing at all or invoke some elaborate and plausible version of catch-22.

The movie buries another, mostly implied rather than examined subject, the sense that nobody tells the truth. The rental agent's facile patter to smooth over the inadequacies of the apartment initially marks him as a liar, along with his responses on the phone about being busy in his office when he is eating lunch or patronizing the OTB. Dahlia's lawyer, the one good guy in the film, works out of his car and often mentions the family he does not possess.

The pervasive dishonesty, the constant rain, the smothering drabness, the dark lighting, the frustrations of contemporary urban life ultimately create the greatest horror in Dark Water.

Dark Water(PG-13), starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Peter Postlethwaite; based on the film by Hideo Nakata; directed by Walter Salles. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge, Eastview, Greece Ridge, Henrietta

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