Horror — a genre meant to evoke in audiences a sense of overwhelming dread — is excellent for examining motherhood. Most want to be good mothers, and so the fear of failing is fertile ground for the excavation of the many ways in which one can be bad. Historically, movies like The Exorcist, The Ring, and The Babadook have looked at mothers trying their best in face of horrors that exist outside of themselves. In The Ring, for example, Rachel (Naomi Watt), a single mother who works too much, is confronted by the ghost-demon Samara who haunts through a VHS tape; it’s a trial that allows Rachel to transform into a more present mother. The Babadook gives us motherhood with complexity, but it uses a similar formula: an exhausted Amelia (Essie Davis) is forced to work through trauma thanks to the appearance of the titular monster so that she can become good. In these movies, the protagonist is a mother who isn’t as good as she could be, but transforms for the better through combat with a ghost or monster that personifies the protagonist’s fears or failings as a mother.
There have been films in recent years, however, that attempt to turn this formula inside out. Exploring motherhood in a meandering way, last year’s Relic is remarkable for its complex look at the intersection of motherhood and dementia, and how the mind can house and fuel a movie’s horror. However, as Angelica Jade Bastién notes in her incisive review, Relic, though interesting for depicting dementia as the bedrock of horror, doesn’t ultimately succeed as a horror movie: “without the heft of sincere horror behind it, Relic falls short of its potential and we’re left wondering how terrifying this message actually is.” The reason for Relic’s shortcomings is its inability to explain the horror within and around its matriarch. This is an obstacle that seems difficult to surmount when horror is moved within the protagonist, but we have seen it overcome. In 2005’s Dark Water, we see mental illness (PTSD) within the protagonist serve as a base for horror. Dark Water is a woefully under-appreciated movie that is groundbreaking because it satisfyingly resolves its horror in the way we wish Relic did. This movie shows us not only that horror within a mother who isn’t a femme fatale is a viable narrative arc, but also how it can be resolved.
Inspired by a Japanese horror movie of the same name, Dark Water follows the haunting of Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly), a woman in her 30s who is going through a messy divorce and custody battle, and her six-year-old daughter Cecilia/Ceci (Ariel Gade). They move to Roosevelt Island because rent is cheap and the school there one of the best. Their new home is a perennially wet, moldy, and leaking building built in the Brutalist style. Once they settle in, the ghost of Natasha Rimski (Perla Haney-Jardine), who was abandoned by her family and died in the building’s water tank, clings to them. Natasha haunts them through the old building’s structural failings, such as an angry leak in Dahlia and Ceci’s bedroom, which the building’s superintendent Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) refuses to fix. As the movie goes on, we learn that Dahlia experienced abuse similar to Natasha’s, and we fear the dead girl’s fate will befall Ceci.
Likewise, Relic looks at mothers’ relationships with their daughters in face of an inheritable illness: dementia. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) make their way to Edna’s rural home after learning that she’s missing. They believe Edna just got lost — she is old, after all, and her memory is failing her, Kay says. Within the home Kay and Sam find the leftovers of a life abruptly abandoned: rotting fruit, food placed out for a long-dead dog, sticky note reminders dotting the house like missives from Edna to herself: “Take your pills,” “You are loved,” they read. A few days into the search, Edna shows up, and when Kay asks her where she’s been, Edna doesn’t know what to say, she won’t talk about it. The film follows the three women as tensions grow between them, tensions that are made urgent by a haunting of the house as if by Edna’s mind.
In both these films, the horror lies in the minds of the mothers, and in the buildings housing them. But of the two, it is only Dark Water that is able to bridge the gap between the horror within the mother and outside of her, thereby making for a coherent horror movie. Relic meanwhile leaves us asking questions about what bearing the goings on within Edna’s mind have on her familial home.
Outside of the dreadfulness of Edna’s illness (which is depicted by her growing distrust of Kay and Sam; a mysterious mold-like bruise on her chest; and a shadowy figure she talks to at night) is the horror of Edna’s family house, which seems to be alive. Air runs through it as though it were breathing, mold grows like sunspots on skin, and strange sounds come from within walls. As the movie goes on, these motifs of horror intensify, serving as a metaphor for Edna’s worsening mental state. The climax sees Kay and Sam lost within an endless maze of corridors, being pursued by a skeletal Edna, who is no longer herself. The film ends with Kay performing a death ritual of sorts for Edna, which, it’s suggested through Kay’s dreams earlier in the movie, wasn’t performed for others in the family. The elderly in Edna’s family died alone, without the care of their children. As the three women lie in bed together, Sam notices a bruise growing on Kay’s back, indicating that she will meet a fate similar to Edna’s. But the issue with all this horror is that there is no clear link between the shadowy figure Edna talks to and the maze of the house, or the ritual that Kay performs. This is why Relic seems incomplete.
While Relic tells parallel tales of horror, Dark Water gives us a Matryoshka doll. Dahlia’s history of abuse is told as though it were the story of a haunting, and we the audience fear Dahlia’s parents, because we see their neglect’s ramifications in the figure of Natasha. Dahlia’s biggest fear is that she is a bad mom because her alcoholic mother abandoned her, leading her to develop PTSD; she fears she will hurt Ceci. But the movie shows us that Dahlia is good, and that Ceci’s fate can’t be like Natasha’s. When Dahlia sweeps Ceci up in an embrace, you feel warmth and love radiating off her as she buries her nose into her daughter’s neck. Dahlia is disciplinary, too: when Ceci goes to the building’s roof, she admonishes her, telling her to never run away again. Dahlia is willing to do anything to make sure Ceci is safe, and Ceci knows this. While her own mother’s hands were so rough with her, Dahlia’s hands are gentle when they touch her daughter. This is why Natasha haunts the two — she desires a good mother, unlike the one who abandoned her, and so she is a desperate want that sticks like the mold in Edna’s house; in every scene, we’re worried Natasha will coldly usurp Ceci in Dahlia’s warm embrace.
Director Walter Salles doesn’t downplay Dahlia’s mental illness, having it instead lend the movie a frantic and paranoid mood. When Dahlia has migraines, the film closes in on Connelly’s face, making you feel claustrophobic. As Dahlia takes her pills, we hear a throbbing like a sinister iteration of a toy she played with as a kid (Perla Haney-Jardine) as she waited for her mother to pick her up from school. As she extinguishes all the light in the apartment, we hear a hissing sound, like a ghostly tap running, persistent in the way a headache pierces. The effect of these scenes is that as the audience, you’re at all times on edge, waiting for Dahlia’s mother to rage through the scene, screaming “I hate you.”
To be successful as a horror story, Dark Water has to provide a satisfying ending to both Dahlia’s and Natasha’s narratives. Accordingly, the film has two endings. The ghost story is resolved when Dahlia sacrifices herself for Ceci, agreeing to be Natasha’s mother so that Natasha will leave Ceci alone. Dahlia’s story is resolved when her ghost visits Ceci as she moves out of the Brutalist building with her dad, assuring her that she will always be with her. Ceci smiles as she leaves, for she knows that she will always have beautiful memories of her kind and generous mother. Though deeply sad, this ending quells Dahlia’s horror because it shows us that Dahlia was never like her mother, she will be kind even to Natasha.
Roger Ebert, in his review of Dark Water, said of Connelly’s Dahlia that “she is not a horror heroine, but an actress playing a mother faced with horror.” But to say this is to not acknowledge Dahlia’s trauma, and the relationship between what happened to her and what happened to Natasha — both Natasha and young Dahlia are played by the same actress, after all. To not acknowledge the horror of Dahlia’s childhood and motherhood is to ultimately ignore half the movie, it is to ultimately misunderstand it. What critics never acknowledged in Dark Water was its complex understanding of horror, of where it can be found, and who can contain it. Relic didn’t justify half of its horrific elements, Dark Water justified all, while making you cry.