Brownstone of Death

Photo: Tony Duran

Our closets may be too small for monsters, but for many of us, there is still nothing more terrifying than New York real estate. Realtors are our bogeymen; gentrification is our bump in the night; mortgages keep us awake, eyes staring up at the ceiling. Against our will, we are forced to imagine nightmare scenarios: eviction, robbery, fire, a co-op hearing, children (where would they go?), an uptick in the distilled evil that is Manhattan rent, the real reason for our townhouse’s below-market price tag.

So it’s not surprising that we’ve projected our subconscious fears into the sub-genre of New York–housing horror: the devil-worshipping Dakota of Rosemary’s Baby; the haunted home of the bad Amityville Horror and its worse remake; the deceptive peace of Jimmy Stewart’s Village digs in Rear Window; even Sigourney Weaver’s swanky Central Park West pad that welcomed Zool’s netherworld in Ghostbusters. This summer, a New York two-bedroom will host the season’s most promising horror film, Dark Water, starring Brooklyn’s Jennifer Connelly.

“There are at least two kinds of scary movies,” says Connelly, sipping Earl Grey tea at a small table in Soho House. “There’s the idyllic kind: You’re in the woods, running, and no one can see you. No one can hear you scream.”

And then there’s our kind.

“The horror of true urban loneliness,” Connelly calls it. “When you feel like you should actually be quite safe, because you’re surrounded by thousands and millions of people. But actually everyone turns a blind eye—and something happens to you on the subway.”

Opening July 8, Dark Water is a quintessential urban horror story—a remake of a terrifying movie by Hideo Nakata (Ringu), which was originally set in Tokyo, the only other city that can rival New York’s scary property frenzy. Indie director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries) is making his Hollywood crossover by recasting the tale—about a brittle divorcée and her young daughter who move into their first apartment—on spooky Roosevelt Island.

There, the specific horror of New York real estate is heightened by the fact that those thousands of people Connelly mentioned become her often-scary neighbors. They give her odd looks in the hallway, talk to themselves on the sidewalk, make suspicious noises next door. And the city, of course, has its own odd history, or—as Manhattan’s Edgar Allan Poe might say from his grave—its ghosts. New York has history like L.A. has sunshine.

“Roosevelt Island has a very strange past,” Connelly says. “It was originally a refuge for smallpox; there was a hospital for terminal cases, and there was this insane asylum there for a long time, which is in decay.”

Filming there apparently creeped her out. “It’s isolated, a bit freaky, and almost feels stuck in a different time,” she says, peppering her gothic description with Briticisms like “daggy” poached from her English husband, actor Paul Bettany. “The stuff in storefront windows—strange picture frames—look like they’re from a different era. I find it to be a really lonely place.”

Nakata’s horror—from Ringu to Dark Water—always relies more on suspenseful atmospherics than gore or monsters—and Connelly says Salles’s adaptation stays true to his vision. There’s still water that seeps through the walls and gushes from the ceilings, “but I don’t think it sells out,” she says. “It’s not all-of-a-sudden gory, and Walter adapted it for our vocabulary.”

Case in point: The Realtor who assists her character is played by John C. Reilly as a “kind of shifty guy—eccentric and frightening, a classic New York real-estate agent,” says Connelly. I confess my own nightmares about agents. “No,” she reassures me, “he doesn’t work for Corcoran.”

All new yorkers have housing horror stories; most star themselves. Connelly’s is a classic, and, like many, it starts off in a small Manhattan studio.

“I got so fed up with my first apartment,” she says, talking with her hands. At first, her thin fingers splay elegantly in front of her, extending from slim black jacket sleeves, but they begin to jab and weave as she tells her story. “I almost moved into a place over a funeral parlor. My father said, ‘That’s just too macabre,’ but I thought I’d be embracing my mortality. I told him it would keep me grounded—like when people get skull tattoos.”

“I remember looking at people, thinking, ‘He’s still in the same neighborhood. What a loser!’ Now I ask myself, ‘I’m not a failure, right?’’’

Connelly toughed out a few more years in her small apartment, then, in her mid-twenties, she found a doorman building, just as she was emerging as a cover-girl movie star. “I didn’t have to check the closets or open the shower curtains when I came home at night. And it was the first apartment I ever had where I didn’t do that—because I used to have an apartment in Soho that had this fire escape, and one time I looked out and saw someone standing there.”

Still, even that apartment became horrific when Connelly had a child (with photographer David Dugan), and then a second with Bettany, forcing her to crowd a family of four into her one-bedroom set-up. “Bringing home a new lipstick became a crisis,” she says, much less an Oscar (which she won in 2001 for A Beautiful Mind). “Where do you put it? It was mad. Finally, it could go on no longer.”

So last year, the movie stars Connelly and Bettany rubbed two pennies together and bought a big Brooklyn townhouse with “a nice backyard and a place for the bicycles”—not far from where Connelly, a Saint Ann’s grad, grew up in Brooklyn Heights. (“I remember looking at people and thinking, ‘He’s still in the same neighborhood. What a loser!’ ” Connelly says. “Now I ask myself, ‘I’m not a failure, right?’ ”)

Connelly’s story seemed to be over—but, per horror formula, real-estate terror lurched back into her life. Connelly’s dream home soon had “two massive floods that completely trashed the whole kitchen,” she says, eyes flashing wide, fingernails flying. “Water coming out of the light fixtures. Pipes burst. Twice! They dispatched the Fire Department.”

The cause? Connelly half-suspects her director, who was courting her to appear in his watery film. “It happened soon after I had Walter over to the house,” she confides, hands suddenly settled primly in her lap. “I hold Walter personally responsible.”

Finally, Connelly and her family are safe. This summer, they’ll spend time in the park and check out films at “BAM, Film Forum, the Angelika.” Grisly death intrudes occasionally—a floating pet fish, say—but Connelly’s kids are tough: “Kai’s a New York kid—savvy,” she explains proudly. “If all goes wrong? Sushi.”

So everything’s fine—or is it?

“He came home from school the other day; their class had put together a poetry book,” she recalls. “I open it: ‘Blood from ceilings,’ really macabre stuff. One kid wrote about ‘longing and desperation twirling in upon itself.’ The second-graders in Brooklyn are reading Edgar Allan Poe! It’s weird—but that’s New York.”

Brownstone of Death