I wish I could have eavesdropped at the Hollywood story conference that produced "Dark Water," this week's supernatural flick. The conversation might have sounded like this: "Haunted houses? Old stuff. Possessed little girls? Been there, done that. Hey, here's an idea. How about a New York apartment with really, really bad plumbing?"
I doubt anyone really said those words, but that's what "Dark Water" is mainly about. An unctuous real estate agent (John C. Reilly) persuades a single mom (Jennifer Connelly) to rent the place for herself and Ceci, her six-year-old daughter. Maybe it's his description of the building - designed in the "Brutalist" architectural style, he proudly says - or his assurance that it's guarded by a superintendent who turns out to be as mean as he is mysterious.
In any case, spooky things start happening as soon as the Pit Bull Moving Company deposits the family's furniture. Mom gets trapped in the elevator. Ceci almost falls off the roof. A ghost may live upstairs, and raindrops keep falling on their heads from leaky pipes in the water-stained ceilings. But do they decide to move? No, it's only $900 a month, and in New York you'd live under a waterfall for that price.
It's a picture with a pedigree, based on a Japanese novel and film. Don't expect another Japanese-inspired sleeper like "The Ring," though. There are only so many thrills you can generate with terrible plumbing. Not that director Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") doesn't try his best, throwing in every gimmick but the proverbial kitchen sink. Wait a minute, he does throw in the kitchen sink. And it works as poorly as everything else.
"Dark Water" has the look of a horror story that went horribly wrong at some point along the production pipeline, prompting the filmmakers to "save" it by adding a comic touch, which also went wrong. The underlying themes are somber, including the heroine's psychological problems, and there's plenty of gothic terror. But the end product is so clunky, scattered, and all-around soggy that sometimes you can't help laughing.
At least Connelly and Reilly give their all, and Tim Roth is terrific as a weird lawyer. The rest is done vastly better by "The Exorcist" and "The Shining," available at DVD outlets everywhere.
• Rated PG-13; contains violence.