The shocking thing about Dream House isn’t its dull storyline, its cardboard characters or its shocking twists that utterly fail to shock. It’s the fact that it comes from such a talented filmmaker. Jim Sheridan has directed Oscar winners; he’s made serious statements about important issues; he’s engaged the cinematic medium with the passion of a true visionary and reaped his share of rewards in the process. What the hell happened here?
Dream House denies us even the most modest horror movie pleasures, as part of its fiendish scheme to bore the audience to death. Sheridan approaches the material from a layman’s standpoint, which is a big mistake; instead of using his own skills to bring a fresh perspective to the horror genre, he starts with a stock haunted house story, then cribs elements from The Shining and The Sixth Sense to drag it across the finish line. It’s profoundly painful to watch, especially with talented actors like Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz leading the way.
Craig plays Will Atenton, a successful publishing editor who quits his job to spend more time with his family. They move to a lovely house in the Connecticut suburbs, unaware of the grisly murders that took place there five years ago and apparently ignorant of the countless hapless horror movie families that came before them. Soon after moving in, they experience a delightful series of tea parties held by the local hedgehogs and… oh sorry, they receive creepy visits from dead-eyed teenagers and wonder why none of their neighbors wants to talk about the previous tenants. One of them – the father and only survivor who everyone suspects is the killer – was recently discharged from a local asylum, and is apparently pissed that the hedgehogs didn’t see fit to invite him.
There’s a twist, of course, that arrives halfway in, and serves only to distract us from the fact that we’ve seen about ten minutes worth of interesting material crammed into a tight forty five. Horror fans can spot the tropes immediately, then ponder them at excruciating length as the movie drags us from one turgid scene to the next. Moments arise when you consider poking your eyes out to punctuate the tedium, then settle for methodically crimping your popcorn box because at least it keeps your hands busy.
Sheridan lays the lovable family routine on extra-thick before busting out with the spook house stuff as a would-be plot complication. Ghosts appear – or do they?! – and Dream House lends their veracity a sweat-flop desperation masquerading as real horror. Considering that any five-year-old could guess where the film is headed – and that the trailer has smothered any sense of mystery long before anyone could get into the theater – its growing hysterics have nothing to distract us from.
You’d think that Craig and Weisz (to say nothing of Naomi Watts as their friendly-but-cagey next-door neighbor) could summon up some human connection for us. Not so much. They love each other, and their kids, and… um… well not a whole lot else. Craig sputters impotently when trespassers enter his property, then laughs it up when a false alarm frightens his wee ones. The idea of a real threat doesn’t emerge until the film’s final third, when soap-opera theatrics latch onto it with clammy hands and throttle the pathetic remnants of life out of it. There’s nothing left to do afterwards except watch the carcass twitch and hope that no one got too stoned during the wrap party.
That constitutes the worst kind of bad: a relentless mediocrity that can’t even leave a lasting impression afterwards. At least with a real howler you have a story to tell, something to chuckle about at the coffee shop afterwards or post Facebook tidbits of the “you won’t believe how badly this sucks” variety. Dream House’s greatest sin is its eminent disposability, a creation of such passive flatness that even complaining about it wastes far too much time. A cold opening has rarely proved more fitting; this one arrives frozen solid.