Rarely has H2O seemed so demonically scary as in "Dark Water," the latest psycho-thriller from Japanese maestro Hideo Nakata ("The Ring," "The Ring 2") which spreads a clammy hand of slow-burning fear across 100 minutes and delivers several real shocks along the way.

Rarely has H2O seemed so demonically scary as in “Dark Water,” the latest psycho-thriller from Japanese maestro Hideo Nakata (“The Ring,” “The Ring 2″) which spreads a clammy hand of slow-burning fear across 100 minutes and delivers several real shocks along the way. Though the central concept doesn’t play on contempo fears of technology in quite the same way as the “Ring” movies, this is almost on the same level as the first pic in that cycle, with considerable specialized potential in offshore markets. Its strong reception across a broad spectrum of viewers at the Berlin fest — where it was a popular entry in the Panorama section — looks to be only the first of many fest plaudits.

Buena Vista is reportedly negotiating for U.S. theatrical rights, and Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium shingle is ponying up $300,000 for remake rights. Stateside, DreamWorks’ remake of “The Ring,” starring Naomi Watts, skedded for an August release, should help to imprint Nakata’s name on a wider audience.

Again working from an original story by Koji Suzuki, known as “the Stephen King of Japan,” Nakata employs his technique of building atmosphere from a kind of heightened naturalism. Central character here is Itsumi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki, from psycho-thriller “The Frame”), an attractive divorcee with a 6-year-old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno), looking for new lodgings to start life afresh. While the lawyers battle over child custody, Itsumi and Ikuko rent apartment #305 in a dilapidated Tokyo building.

Nervy and on edge — and still carrying some emotional scars from working on violent graphic novels as a proofreader — Itsumi seems easy prey for anything out of the ordinary. The apartment block is humid and creepy, with an unhelpful old janitor and a tiny elevator with dripping water. Outside, it’s the rainy season; inside her apartment, there’s a damp patch on the ceiling that also drips.

Strange occurrences start almost immediately, with Ikuko briefly going missing and her mom finding her on the roof of the building with a child’s red backpack. And when Itsumi goes to the fourth floor to investigate the damp patch in her ceiling, she thinks she sees someone in the vacant apartment above hers.

Gradually, Itsumi discovers that a girl called Mitsuko Kawai disappeared from the district years ago, supposedly kidnapped by a pervert. And now Ikuko has taken to playing in the bath with a doll she calls Mitsuko.

After laying extensive groundwork, pic springs its first big set piece an hour in, when Itsumi wakes in her apartment to find Ikuko gone — the damp stain on her ceiling now spreading like a virus — and takes the elevator again to the fourth floor.

It’s a real chiller well worth the wait, and thereafter, as the story of Mitsuko becomes clearer, Nakata doles out the shocks with cool precision, climaxing in a rooftop finale that’s every bit the measure of the famous TV set sequence in “The Ring.”

Lensing by Junichiro Hayashi is a full partner in the pic’s atmosphere, with muted, slightly underlit interiors and few bright colors; in the grayish tonal scheme, objects like the red backpack take on a sinister resonance. As a metaphor for seeping evil, water is ever-present, in a growing number of hues: No one is likely to leave the bath running after seeing this movie.

Pic is basically a tour de force by Kuroki, as the young mother, with some adept playing by Kanno as the daughter. Occasionally, Kuroki overdoes her character’s paranoia — mostly in scenes with her lawyer, who’s worried that her erratic behavior will imperil the custody battle — but in general the 31-year-old thesp makes a very watchable heroine. Other roles are essentially bits, and the overall running time just right.

Dark Water

Japan

Production

A Toho release of a Dark Water Film Partners presentation of an OZ production. (International sales: Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Taka Ichise. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay, Yoshihiro Nakamura, Ken-ichi Suzuki, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Crew

Camera (color), Junichiro Hayashi; editor, Nobuyuki Takahashi; music, Kenji Kawai; art director, Katsumi Nakazawa; sound (DTS Stereo), Masayuki Iwakura, Kiyoshi Kakizawa; sound effects, Kenji Shibazaki; special effects, Shuichi Kishiura; visual effects, Mitsuaki Hashimoto; assistant director, Masanori Adachi. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 7, 2002. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Itsumi Matsubara - Hitomi Kuroki Ikuko, age 6 - Rio Kanno Mitsuko Kawai - Mirei Oguchi Ikuko, age 16 - Asami Mizukawa

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