I just saw the Japanese movie Dark Water. I’ve been watching a lot of American horror movies recently — I saw George Romero’s Crazies a couple of weeks ago for example — and I like them a lot, but I never really find them all that scary. Crazies, for example, was good predictable fun; the horrible infection spreading through town driving everyone insane; the government fucking everything up; the townspeople reacting in more or less the worst and most violent ways possible; lots of bitter ironies; random interpersonal conflicts — you know the drill. It’s all about violent payoffs and loud breastbeating and watching the world dissolve into chaos, whee!, violating various taboos along the way. Good clean fun, plus the very sexy Lynn Lowry makes an appearance. What more can you ask for?

Dark Water, on the other hand, is PG. The world does not descend into chaos; there’s not really any violence to speak of, and the apocalypse certainly doesn’t beckon. And it completely freaked me out. It made me so anxious I had trouble watching the whole thing, and afterwards the world seems like an even bleaker and lonelier place.

I’m not sure exactly how the movie managed to do this. Part of it is that it latches on to feelings of parental anxiety rather than sex. The mother-daughter pair is in danger of being separated by a custody battle, and the mother’s terror at this prospect is mirrored in a truly petrifying ghost story. Over and over again in Dark Water, the mother (Yoshimi) loses her daughter (Ikuku) and goes running to find her, generally through the claustrophobic corridors of a dark, rickety building. Every time it happens the tension gets more and more unbearable, and every time it happens a little more of the supernatural creeps in — a child’s red bag that shows up again and again, water pooling in more and more unlikely places, a head glimpsed for a moment on a video screen, a brief vision…. There’s an accretion of details, leading up to the climactic terrifying moment when the child is the wrong child, and the victim is the wrong victim, followed by an extended denoument that is deeply unsettling. The vacillation between the eerie interludes and moments of normality is very well done; instead of an accelerating blast of terror, the movie moves in cycles, and the result is that you’re never quite sure when the horror is going to start; it all leaks through into the everyday world. The end, too, doesn’t have any of the winking comfort of a lot of American films; this isn’t one of those instances where you’re rooting for the monster. Not that the ghost isn’t sympathetic — she is — but she’s also unknowable; an emotional dislocation. The movie really isn’t about a monster at all; it’s about the uncanniness of death and loss. There isn’t even really grief here; just a blank shadow, like water, covering up memory and love.

Yeah; it’s a beautiful movie, but don’t watch it unless you want to be depressed for a while.