THE DULLING Imagery that recalls better movies is not the biggest problem with Sheridan’s scare flick.
Some movies can survive spoiling. Citizen Kane is still great even if you know what Rosebud is; Fight Club packs a punch whether you expect the final twist or not. A synopsis wouldn’t make The Orphanage any less dread inducing, because a good horror film sucks viewers in with pacing and visceral effects. And then there are movies like Dream House, which don’t have much going for them beyond a decent third-act surprise.
Why, then, did the film’s marketers reveal that surprise in the trailer? Researchers at the University of California, San Diego recently announced that spoilers don’t spoil anything. But their results were based on subjects’ responses to classic short stories, not uninspired genre films. By grabbing attention with a major spoiler, the marketing department does a disservice to any potential viewer who is still willing to give a movie like Dream House a chance, confident that director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) and his top-flight cast must have bigger and better surprises in store. That reveal in the trailer can’t be it, can it? Actually, yes, it pretty much can.
Since we cannot speak further of the aforementioned twist, what is there to say about Dream House? Big-time New York editor Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) retires to his family’s newly purchased Connecticut dream home to write his novel. The venerable colonial appears to boast a state-of-the-art heating system, since Will’s lovely wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), traipses around in tank tops while winter rages outside, doing quirky art projects and playing with the couple’s adorable daughters (Taylor and Claire Geare). The dream house lacks a gym, so our hero’s state of extreme buffness goes unexplained.
Or perhaps the film’s early scenes are lifestyle porn for people who enjoy HGTV? Real-life couple Craig and Weisz look pretty together, but their interactions are so relentlessly banal that it’s good we know what’s coming. In a horror movie or thriller, retiring to an idyllic house in the suburbs is on par with going to investigate a weird noise in the basement. Nothing good can follow. So it’s no surprise when Will discovers a conclave of goth teenagers building a shrine in his basement. He soon finds out his realtor didn’t disclose a key chapter in the house’s recent history.
The plot’s familiarity wouldn’t matter if the film succeeded in building a dreamy sense of dread, but no such luck. Early on, Sheridan gives us a groaner of a gratuitous jump scare; later, he clumsily inserts a scene that alerts watchful viewers to the identity of a culprit. The script by David Loucka demands supernatural-horror-flick levels of suspension of disbelief, yet the payoff he has engineered calls to mind a middling TV police procedural.
Set in a world that feels paper thin and illusory — sometimes by design, sometimes not — Dream House wastes fine actors in meager roles. As the Atentons’ neighbor, Naomi Watts scans the snowy landscape with her cornflower-blue eyes, looking for something to do. Marton Csokas (of The Debt) and veteran Canadian character actor Elias Koteas might as well be replaced by standard TV heavies. Weisz has touching moments, but Craig often seems as icy eyed and removed from the action as he did in Cowboys & Aliens.
By the time he becomes more engaged, the story is already creaking under the weight of contrivance. The ending can’t save it, because Loucka seems to have forgotten rule No. 1 of all the best haunted-house movies: When a home becomes a hell, there should be plenty of guilt to spread around. Here, that’s less true in the movie than of the movie. Between the writing, the direction and the smash-and-grab marketing, it’s hard to say who’s most to blame.