''Dark Water" is a horror movie that's best enjoyed -- or at least heeded -- as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of apartment rental. Directed by Brazil's Walter Salles, it's a remake of Hideo Nakata's 2002 freak-out, and until it sputters to a nonsensical close, the film is a spooky entertainment.
The finale is disappointing given how mightily Salles handles most of the material in Rafael Yglesias's script. Salles is the sensual humanist behind ''Central Station" and ''The Motorcycle Diaries," and he's probably among the last people you'd expect to make a movie adapted from a picture by Nakata, the man who also made the original ''Ring" flicks. But his first Hollywood assignment is not as weird a match for his emotional sensibility as it appears.
Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) is looking for a new place to live with her 5-year-old daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade), as she braces herself for a custody battle with her belligerent, soon-to-be-ex husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott). Desperate to find something affordable, she takes a place on Roosevelt Island, that sliver of land with the notorious prison back story that's just a finger snap away from Manhattan.
On the tram over to the island, Cecilia worries that the island is less exciting than the city. Actually, it's presented rather strikingly as a towering concrete jungle, which Dahlia likens to a small town. She's found a vacant one-bedroom in a dank Brutalist complex, where the movie serves up two big treats: John C. Reilly as Mr. Murray, the blithe but shady building manager, and Pete Postlethwaite as Veeck, the terse maintenance chief with a vague accent. (Tim Roth, as Dahlia's lawyer, is waiting in the movie's second half.)
Between Postlethwaite's brusque demeanor and Reilly's jaunty but scary tour (''You can smell the river. Can you smell it?"), most people would run screaming from the unit. But in a moment that sort of breaks your heart, Dahlia takes it, mostly at the urging of her daughter, whose disdainful attitude toward the place reverses once she wanders up to the roof and finds an abandoned backpack, which she'll spend the rest of the picture coveting.
The building has other deterrents. The elevator seems to have a mind of its own. The walls are surprisingly thin. The faucets spew hair. And in a corner of the bedroom Dahlia and Cecilia share, there is a stain that looks like a burn from a very large cigarette. It drips an unexplained and possibly unsanitary coffee-colored liquid. Both Murray and Veeck give Dahlia the runaround about fixing it.
Along with the leak, Dahlia also has to deal with Cecilia's acquisition of an imaginary friend named Natasha and the possibility that her husband is trying to exploit her already fragile mental state (she was neglected as a child) so he can seem the fitter parent. Had ''Dark Water" stopped here and gone in some other direction, the movie could have been a hauntingly atmospheric portrait of a woman's gradual psychological collapse.
Heaven knows Connelly is up to the task. The teary emoting she does can sometimes come at the expense of her characters, as was the case in her last real-estate nightmare, ''The House of Sand and Fog." But she's in sharp form here, not allowing the character's patience and maternal strength to eclipse her common sense. Dahlia affords Connelly her best and most believable performance.
Sadly, she's shortchanged by a movie whose dramatic strengths are hamstrung by its ridiculous obligations to the original.
There are bizarre floods in Dahlia's bathroom, a thankless trip to the top of the building's water tower, and silly scenes with a dead girl who looks a lot like Dahlia when she was young. Too many questions leave us asking questions. And there's a pitiful lack of fright: All the suspense is easily shrugged off in the last 20 minutes.
Still, aided by Daniel Rezende's crisp editing, Affonso Beato's handsome photography, and Therese DePrez's evocatively dismal production design, Salles is able to tease out the fraught family drama that lurks in Nakata's films. And as long as the movie is in step with Connelly's aching heroine and not trying to scare our socks off, ''Dark Water" is of a piece with Salles's sensitive filmmaking. Obviously, from a genre standpoint, that presents a tremendous problem. Nobody goes to a horror movie for a good cry.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.