I can’t remember the last time a movie drove itself over a cliff as badly as Dreamcatcher does. Everything starts off really well, as we meet a group of friends who share a secret ability to read minds. Pete (Timothy Olyphant) is a car salesman unable to get a date; Beaver (Jason Lee) is a sarcastic music junkie; Henry (Thomas Jane) is a therapist who recently pushed a client over the brink; and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) is a college professor willing to bend the rules to help his students. The four men get together for a hunting trip. At their remote cabin in the woods, they talk about their childhood pal “Duddits” – a retarded boy they saved from bullies who were trying to make him eat dog doody. Duddits appeared to have some supernatural powers, which he taught his friends to harness in some way.
Hanging inside their cabin is a large dreamcatcher – a device that, according to Native American legend, keeps the nightmares away. It does no good, though, when things start getting creepy in the woods (the Blair Witch looks tame by comparison). While Peter and Henry are out getting supplies, Jonesy and Beaver are visited by a lost hunter. The guy has a weird rash covering his face and an extremely nasty case of flatulence. There is also a suspicious bulge moving around inside his stomach, which turns out to be a vicious alien. Imagine a giant slug spilt down the middle, with layers and layers of sharp teeth inside. That’s the creature. It gets loose and eats Beaver, then goes after Jonesy. Several other similar creatures are loose in other parts of the woods, infecting other people, as Peter and Henry eventually discover.
At this point, we’re about an hour into Dreamcatcher and I’m hooked. The movie – with its eerie tone and shockingly graphic gore – goes beyond scary; it’s downright disturbing. Seeing as many movies as I do each year, I have become somewhat immune to gross-out special effects, but these got to me. I was reminded of the horror I felt the first time I saw the original Alien. It was clear that the film was working.
I also thought the first hour really captured the essence of a Stephen King novel (the movie is based on one of his many bestsellers). When you read a King book, there’s a particular style that hadn’t previously been captured by the movie adaptations – not even the good ones. King often inserts contemporary slang at unusual times to catch you off guard. He also tries to make unexpected things scary so that you laugh and squirm simultaneously. Dreamcatcher nails King’s style in the early scenes; the characters spout odd exclamations during life-threatening situations, and the scenes of the hunter farting ominously produce the aforementioned giggle/squirm effect.
But all the good stuff literally stops on a dime in hour two. The slug alien Jonesy runs into doesn’t eat him. Instead, the head alien appears and inhabits Jonesy’s body. Jonesy tries to fight back (the movie depicts this by having him stand at a window looking out at his own inhabited body) but can’t. The possessed Jonesy now calls himself “Mr. Gray” and inexplicably begins speaking in a British accent. Because he can read minds, Henry realizes that something is going wrong. Yes, something is very wrong indeed. The movie has turned hopelessly silly.
Because of all the alien activity, the forest is quarantined and a renegade military group comes in to investigate. It is lead by Col. Curtis (Morgan Freeman) who, it soon becomes clear, has lost his mind from years of chasing aliens. He talks about having to kill American citizens while his horrified second-in-command, Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore), reacts in shock. Curtis organizes an arial assault on the creatures, in what plays like a deleted scene from Independence Day. The movie that began as a tightly wound, claustrophobic chiller devolves into a generic splatter flick. None of the scenes with Freeman work, because they are so out of place and so ridiculously overwrought. His character has no purpose, other than to be a kook. When flesh-eating aliens are running around the woods, do we really need a nutcase to add suspense? The part is so poorly conceived that Freeman can do nothing with it. He’s stuck looking silly up on the screen. I never thought I’d say these words, but Morgan Freeman gives the worst performance in the film.
That’s not all. The movie has some of the most unintentionally funny scenes in recent memory. Such as this one: Henry is in the car with Underhill, who has just given him a gun. There is some talk about telepathically communicating with the real Jonesy to figure out how to defeat Mr. Gray. Henry sends his thought waves out, begging Jonesy to “call” him. He then hears the sound of a phone ringing. Henry picks up the gun and starts speaking into it as though it were a telephone while an impressed underhill looks on. I am not kidding when I say I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year.
That scene is nearly equaled by the grand finale. (Spoiler Alert!) Henry goes and finds Duddits, who is now dying of leukemia. Figuring Duddits is the only one capable of stopping the alien, Henry brings him to a water treatment facility, where Mr. Gray intends to throw one of the slugs into the water supply, thereby infecting even more people. Duddits is now portrayed by former New Kids on the Block member Donnie Wahlberg in an offensively stereotypical manner that ought to be getting protested by Mental Retardation advocates everywhere. Duddits walks in, takes a look at Mr. Gray and mutters, “Scooby Dooby-Doo, where are you? We’ve got some work to do now!” He then enters some kind of weird cocoon thing with Mr. Gray and they both blow up. Which leads to the questions: what did he do and where the hell did they go? Dreamcatcher ends abruptly at this point, so any desire you might have for some explanation is lost.
Believe it or not, Dreamcatcher was co-written by Oscar winner William Goldman (who penned Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid as well as the Stephen King adaptations Misery, Stand By Me, and Hearts in Atlantis. The other co-writer is Lawrence Kasdan, who also directed. Kasdan has previously made such classy films as The Big Chill and Grand Canyon. For the first hour, they got everything right. As for the second hour…well, how can two such immensely talented people not know that this was complete, unmitigated crap? I did not read King’s novel, but I’m willing to bet it’s not all that similar; somebody screwed him over. King himself has been the harshest critic of movies made from his books. Next time he wants to write about something really scary, he can take the adaptation of Dreamcatcher as his inspiration.
( 1/2 out of four)
Dreamcatcher is rated R for violence, gore, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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