Dream House is one of those rare movies that proves a work of art can be worse than the sum of its parts. Of course, the parts of Dream House aren't very good to begin with: half supernatural haunting story, and half psychological whodunit, it's a Frankenmovie that can't figure out what to do with the story it has set up. Instead of deciding, director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) throws plot details at us randomly, most of which involve Daniel Craig running around shirtless, Rachel Weisz wearing a slip, and Naomi Watts looking troubled in a fur coat.
What I'm saying is, even good actors in sexy clothes can't make this movie compelling. Still, it's worth talking about because it's a good example of what happens when an arthouse director tries to do a genre film and fails miserably.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Director Sheridan is known mostly for brooding character studies that are in some way inspiring, despite dipping into the extremes of human misery. And you can see why he would have been attracted to the story of Will Atenton, a book editor who quits his fancy job to live in a country home with his family and finally write that novel he's been thinking about for years. We're supposed to understand that he loves his wife a lot because he says things to her like, "You can't stay beautiful forever? Aw, shucks." Now that's romance, people.
Unfortunately, something is troubling our loverboy — and the house that his family just purchased. His daughters are seeing weird men looking in the windows. Then he finds local teenagers doing Satanic rituals in his basement that pay homage to a man who apparently killed his family in the house five years before. Will and his wife Libby realize they're living on top of a bloody murder scene, and that the murderer has been released from his mental institution — in fact, he may be lurking around their house. So they try to get help from the police and neighbors but no one will lift a finger.
Things get creepy, but only in the most predictable way possible. There are shadowy figures in the snow outside. Will has to go down into the creaky basement where the teenagers have left bloodied mannequins, candles, and a handy box of microfilm chronicling the murders. The movie is so anti-compelling that at this point I found myself wondering why Will hadn't learned about the murders in disclosures when he was buying the house. If you have to report a history of pest infestations in disclosures, wouldn't you also have to report a murder that has left the hallways riddled with bullet holes? And then I wondered what his wife's job was, since somebody has to pay the mortgage but she's at home all day pestering Will as he tries to write longhand in a scary notebook full of pictures and demonic scribbles. He's begun to obsess over the murderer Peter Ward, and you get the sinking feeling that you're watching a really incompetent retelling of Stanley Kubrik's The Shining, where a writer merges personalities with a guy who killed his family and then tries to kill his own family.
But no! This movie is just too incoherent for things to be like that. If you thought you were going to get a haunted house story, even a barely adequate one, you're wrong. Instead, fairly early in the film, we abruptly switch gears into another incompetent retelling of another film — this time, it's Martin Scorsese's recent movie Shutter Island. In that film, itself a fairly uneven work, the main character thinks he's a detective but turns out to be the guy who murdered his own family. But he's erased his old identity, split personality style, to avoid feeling guilt about what he's done.
Will takes a trip to the mental institution where Peter Ward was held, and discovers (snore) that he is Peter Ward! He was so violent, and so insane, that he couldn't stand trial for the crimes that everyone assumes he committed. As a result, the invisible liberal commies who run everything have decided the best thing is to release him on the streets so that he can go back to the decaying house where he lived with his family and scare the shit out of all the neighbors. This is where the storytelling goes from clichéd to outright bad. The head of the mental institution shows Will/Peter video footage of how violent he has been for five years, and informs him that he's a danger to himself and others. He has been deemed unfit to stand trial, but fit to be released into the community. In what universe is this possible? I realize the American system for dealing with mental illness is shoddy, but this is absolutely ridiculous.
So now we're supposed to believe that all the weird behavior we saw from Will's neighbors and the police was because they knew he was Peter Ward sitting around having hallucinations of his dead family. But for some reason, nobody has reported him to the authorities — he's broken into his old house, he's screaming and running around, but his neighbor Naomi Watts just looks at him with wistful sympathy and makes him some stew. Why doesn't she tell him that he's Peter Ward? Why don't the cops bring him back to his mental institution after they catch him terrorizing the neighbors multiple times?
Please don't ask these questions, because Peter needs to have an emotional epiphany in the middle of two half-formed movies that don't call for one.
Now Peter decides, since he has a whole half of the movie to get through still, that his new mission is to scream at the ghosts of his family until they tell him what happened the night of the murders. There are a lot of sequences that I suppose are intended to be surreal, or maybe a little scary, where his cute daughters suddenly grow bullet holes and wife Libby yells at Peter for being a bad dad. Plus, Peter is sad. His wonderful family is dead! And he isn't really writing a novel. Plus, his skin is much worse than we thought it was when he was Will.
And now, back to the pitiful remains of the genre movies that Sheridan was trying to make. You won't be surprised to discover that there is something that we are supposed to think of as a surprise to explain what happened to Peter. Just for fun, let's call it a twist ending even though when you see it you'll think you're watching a punchline from Home Alone. Honestly, if you bother to see this movie, you'll find that I'm not exaggerating at all when I compare it to that classic John Hughes movie about bumbling criminals. I don't guarantee a good time, but I do guarantee head-slappery.
By the time Peter has his epiphany, which he certainly doesn't deserve, you just want to slap everybody in the movie except for the teenagers who were doing the Satanic ritual in Peter's basement. I want to watch whatever movie they were in — while Peter was struggling to squeeze a book deal out of his emotional trauma, they were probably off fighting vampires in graveyards.
As I said at the outset, this is the kind of movie that an art director makes after watching maybe one or two horror movies and deciding that he understands everything about the genre. As a result, you're left with something that looks, at best, cluelessly clichéd to people who are more familiar with the genre. And you don't need to be a horror aficionado to find the whole production incoherent and tone deaf. The fact is, Sheridan could have used all these great actors to tell a straightforward story about a man driven crazy with grief, coming to terms with what he has lost. That he tries to shoehorn that simple emotional core into genres that Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese spent their careers mastering makes everybody involved in this film look like a fool.